Disabled passengers bearing brunt of travel disruption, say charities

Disabled people are experiencing stress and degradation because of “truly appalling” service failures caused by the ongoing travel disruption, charities have said.

Airline cancellations in recent weeks and longstanding rail problems have been difficult for everyone, but campaigners say that because the transport industry treats disabled people as the lowest priority, they are bearing the brunt of the turmoil.

“Far too many disabled people have endured stressful and degrading travel experiences recently because they are constantly seen as an afterthought when it comes to transport, and when things go badly [in the travel industry] the impact is huge,” said James Taylor, the executive director of strategy at the disability equality charity Scope.

“On planes we have seen too many examples of disabled people forced to wait a long time for assistance, causing discomfort, frustration and huge delays to their trips,” he said. “On trains, disabled people can miss their stop entirely because staff have failed to provide assistance getting off the train. Disabled people are literally being left behind – we are still far from being an accessible society.”

Many disabled people had had enough of travelling because it was “so much harder than it needs to be”, he said. “As summer travel ramps up, transport providers must stop putting disabled passengers last.”

A Scope survey in 2018 found that 53% of disabled passengers who required assistance were often held on a plane longer than usually needed because their assistance had not arrived.

Fazilet Hadi, the head of policy at Disability Rights UK, said airports needed to significantly improve their assistance services to disabled passengers. She said: “In recent weeks, disabled people have experienced some truly appalling service failures and been left on planes for hours without any communication or help.

“The news that a disabled person died after waiting for a prolonged amount of time for help is truly shocking. Disabled people need much higher levels of support than those currently being provided, especially in the light of recent delays, cancellations and disruption.”

Airports have cancelled dozens of flights in the past fortnight because of staff shortages caused by the sacking of thousands of employees in 2020 during Covid restrictions. There have been multiple reports of flights being cancelled at the last minute, lost luggage, long queues and holidaymakers sleeping on the floor of terminals.

Disabled people have been stranded on planes, abandoned in empty airports and reported vital equipment such as wheelchairs damaged or lost.

An investigation has been opened into the death of a disabled passenger who reportedly fell down an escalator after getting off a flight without a helper at Gatwick airport. Days earlier, the Civil Aviation Authority said it had seen an increase in reports of “significant service failings” at airports, including incidents where passengers needing assistance had been taken off a plane hours after other passengers.

The tragedy happened a week after the same airport apologised to Victoria Brignell, who is paralysed from the neck down, after she was left on a plane for more than an hour and a half when assistance staff did not arrive.

“I booked the help three months in advance, so it wasn’t as if I just turned up. They knew I was coming, and I reminded them two weeks ago, and still I didn’t get the service that I should expect to have,” Brignell said.

Chris Nicholson, a former rugby player, said he had to drag himself up stairs at Milton Keynes train station last week after staff refused to help him owing to health and safety policy.

This article was amended on 23 June 2022. An earlier version of the text linked the concerns raised by charities representing disabled people with the planned rail strikes on 21, 23 and 25 June; these comments were related to recent air industry disruption and longstanding rail network problems.

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