So – how easy is it for disabled flyers to – well, fly?
It is an era when both carriers and airport authorities are disability aware, and there are international laws and regulations in force which govern air travel by disabled people. Yet evidence exists that disabled people still suffer disproportionate problems.
Jenny Gumbrell, who has multiple sclerosis, got off a flight from New Zealand in February to find that her portable mobility scooter, when unloaded from her plane at Gatwick Airport, had been damaged beyond economic repair.
Since then Jenny has had to battle Emirates Airlines for compensation.
The airline offered £1,094 after a delay of 4 weeks, which was in accordance with legal thresholds: yet a new scooter would have cost Jenny £2,200. It was only after she contacted the Observer with her story that the airline finally agreed to pay the full cost of replacement.
A spokesperson for Emirates said, “The comfort and wellbeing of all of our passengers is of paramount importance, in particular customers with reduced mobility.”
Daniel Scott (not his real name), who is 47 and unable to walk following a spinal cord injury, found that the brakes on his wheelchair were damaged following a Ryanair flight from Slovakia to London Stansted.
“No one was the slightest bit bothered with just how serious this was, and all I was given was a damage form to fill out at lost luggage,” he says.
Housebound, he had to pay £200 for a repair, but he found the wheelchair still did not run reliably due to the transit damage and he was eventually forced to replace it at a cost of £4,800. A long running battle with Stansted only resulted in a payment of £100 for “goodwill”.
Ryanair commented that while it regrets any inconvenience, ”…London Stansted was responsible for this service and any problems with it.”
Physical loss or damage of essential equipment is not the only way that disabled flyers are trapped in a cycle of disadvantage. A passenger with cerebral palsy brought a claim for degrading treatment against Thomas Cook after a nightmare flight caused him humiliation and distress. He had asked to be seated next to his wife so that she could attend to his special needs. But they were allocated seats a row apart so she had to crouch in the aisle to deal with his catheter and help with his food.
The Supreme Court judge who heard his case described it as a “grave injustice”, yet he was prevented from awarding compensation because there is no provision under law for stress or psychological damage.
So, What Are The Regulations?
There are two main regulations currently in force:
- The Montreal Convention 1999, which is the international agreement that harmonises compensation for all passengers in the event of death, injury or liability for lost or damaged goods.
- EU Regulation 1107/ 2006, which establishes and protects the rights of disabled people and people of reduced mobility when travelling by air in all EU member states.
There is no financial limit on the amount that airlines and airports may be obliged to pay as compensation for bodily injury. But there is no allowance for psychological damage.
Worse, the maximum compensation for lost or damaged luggage is only around £1,200.
Disability campaigners would argue that this amount does not go far enough, for two reasons. Disabled people are more likely on average to suffer stress and humiliation, for which they will not, under law, be compensated. And the existing compensation amount for loss or damage to luggage fails to distinguish between a suitcase of clothes, which is easily replaced, and an essential aid such as a wheelchair, which can cost much more and, while absent, makes a life-changing difference to the user.
A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority said, “We are gathering information on the frequency with which mobility aids are damaged and the contingencies airlines and airports have to look after disabled passengers when incidents occur. We then intend to examine the potential options available to wheelchair users to receive better protection.”