The Department for Transport (DfT) has said it is “unfair” to suggest that the government’s accessible transport strategy is failing, despite three high-profile incidents involving disabled air and rail passengers last week.
In one incident, a disabled passenger in his 80s died after falling from an escalator at Gatwick airport (pictured) after deciding to leave a plane with family members rather than waiting for assistance.
Two days earlier, a 92-year-old disabled passenger at Gatwick had to hammer on a window and shout for help because she believed she had been abandoned by assistance staff.
And on Friday, a wheelchair-user claimed he had to drag himself up a flight of stairs at Milton Keynes railway station, and was initially refused help by staff, because of a broken lift.
Only last week, the government and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) wrote to the aviation industry about recent disruption at airports, and listed five “expectations”, including that “disabled and less mobile passengers must be given assistance they require”.
And earlier this month, CAA wrote to airports to tell them to address “unacceptable” failings in the provision of assistance to disabled passengers.
CAA said in the letter that it would “continue to closely monitor the quality of service provided and if these significant service failures continue, we will consider whether further action is needed, including using enforcement powers”.
Earlier this month, Gatwick had to apologize to a disabled passenger who was left on a plane for more than an hour-and-a-half after it landed.
And last monththe BBC’s security correspondent, Frank Gardner, tweeted a similar experience at Heathrow airport.
Four years ago, the government published its Inclusive Transport Strategy (PDF), promising to “make our transport system more inclusive, and to make travel easier for disabled people”.
It insisted that a “genuinely inclusive transport system” would be “central to this Government’s mission to build a country that works for everyone”.
Asked about last week’s three incidents, a DfT spokesperson commented on the two Gatwick incidents.
He said: “We want aviation to be accessible for all and to provide the best service for disabled people and those with reduced mobility.
“We have a robust regulatory framework to support this, and it is unfair to suggest our Inclusive Transport Strategy is failing.
“Ministers and the Civil Aviation Authority have been clear with industry what is expected in relation to providing support to disabled passengers and those with reduced mobility when traveling by air.”
A Gatwick spokesperson said that “staff shortages” at its passenger assistance provider Wilson James were not a factor in the “sad and tragic” incident involving the disabled passenger who fell from the escalator.
He said: “A member of Wilson James staff was waiting when the aircraft arrived and was in the process of disembarking the three passengers with mobility difficulties when the incident occurred.”
A Wilson James spokesperson said the incident “was not related to staff shortages”, the passenger who died “was not left waiting in any way”, and the incident itself happened only 10 minutes after the aircraft had landed.
She said: “Wilson James attended the aircraft with a five-seater buggy to collect three passengers who had pre-booked the assistance service.
“Two passengers required a wheelchair, one did not.
“The Wilson James agent took the first passenger by wheelchair, who disembarked to the elevator adjacent to the airbridge.
“During this time, the passenger who did not need a wheelchair disembarked the aircraft on foot and took the escalator with their family members.”
Gatwick said that a “challenging operational day, including significant delays” had led to the operational assistance arriving late to meet the 92-year-old passenger, and it apologized for her “poor experience”, which was far from the standards we expect ”.
The Wilson James spokesperson said the women had waited 33 minutes for the assistance to arrive, which “falls short of our expectations for our service delivery, and we acknowledge her frustrations”.
She said: “Given widespread challenges in air travel at the moment, we are constantly adjusting our resources to meet the shifting reality of flight changes or delays, including trying to allocate agents with relevant experience to passengers with the most complex needs.”
The Gatwick spokesperson said Wilson James was “a respected provider and, since 2017, has provided a good quality service for the airport”.
Investigations into both incidents are ongoing.
London Northwestern Railway (LNR), which runs Milton Keynes station, denied that the disabled passenger had been refused assistance by staff.
LNR blamed an “unfortunate combination of his train terminating early due to disruption and the lift being out of order on the particular platform his train arrived at”.
An LNR spokesperson said station staff had been in the process of arranging for a train to be re-routed to that platform as he attempted to climb the stairs with his wheelchair.
But she said LNR was “really sorry” about the “distressing” experience and that station staff had provided assistance in “challenging circumstances”, as well as offering the passenger an alternative travel solution to get him to his destination.
She said LNR was working with the train provider Avanti “to investigate what happened and understand where we can improve the experience of rail travel for passengers with disabilities”.
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