The BBC journalist Frank Gardner recently highlighted the challenges of air travel for wheelchair users, when he tweeted about being abandoned on a plane at Heathrow Airport. Despite being promised a wheelchair to transport him to the airport terminal, it didn’t arrive.
The problem is a common one for wheelchair users, and it can make an already challenging situation even more complicated. Gardner, who is the security correspondent for the BBC, was seriously injured in an attack by al-Qaida gunman in Saudi Arabia in 2004. His spinal nerves were damaged, and he underwent multiple operations.
Gardner resumed his role at the BBC in 2005, and travels regularly, despite having lost the use of his legs. He landed at Heathrow recently, after a flight from Estonia via Helsinki.
Finding himself stranded on the plane, he vented his frustration to his thousands of Twitter followers, writing: “It’s happened again. Stuck on an empty plane at Heathrow airport long after everyone else is off. No staff to get my wheelchair off the plane’. I am SO disappointed.” He added that it was the fourth time it had happened.
His Tweet struck a cord with other wheelchair users, who shared similar experiences. One complained about their experience at a different UK airport: “It had been agreed that the mobility scooter would be made available to me at the entrance of the plane, but there was nobody to fetch it up, so I was left.”
The user was eventually offered a generic airport wheelchair, but his customised mobility scooter, which was adapted for his particular needs, was not made available. This is despite the accessibility regulations stipulating that airports must provide appropriate mobility assistance to air passengers.
A spokesperson for Heathrow Airport issued an apology to Mr Gardener, and explained that they were experiencing staff shortages and other operational problems in the wake of the pandemic.
A statement read: “As the airport rebuilds post-pandemic, all organisations across the airport are scaling-up resources so that we can get back to operating at a more normal level as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the delay Mr Gardner experienced was a result of the airline’s ground handling agents struggling with a colleague shortfall.”
Mr Gardner suggested that in the future, airport staff should communicate ahead, so that all passengers requiring assistance are met on landing with their personal wheelchair. Ironically, it was one of his frustrated Tweets in 2018 that brought about Heathrow’s change in policy, so that chairs are delivered to the plane door rather than the terminal.
Passengers wishing to book mobility assistance should do so at least 48 hours ahead of their journey, through the travel agent, tour operator, or airline. You still have the right to assistance even if it is not pre-booked, but you may have to wait longer. Passengers wishing to complain are advised to do so directly to the airline or airport.
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