Taking a holiday and flying abroad should be a fun and pleasurable experience and in order to ensure that this experience is as pleasurable as possible for all, provisions are sometimes needed to aid those travelling with disabilities and mobility issues. There are several procedures and forms of help available to those with disabilities in UK and international airports as we discuss below.
The help provided to disabled travellers in European airports is still surprising diverse and from my own research to date, it tends to be the much smaller airports which seem best at catering to these needs. The fact that smaller airports have perhaps fewer levels of bureaucracy and less layers of management perhaps makes the process easier. One elderly couple I know refuse to use Heathrow or Gatwick airport after too many problems with trying to get assistance and they found that the small Italian airports such as as Genova Airport have better provision for mobility reduced passengers, than what many large airports do. Many of the smaller airports for example tend to have easier to find special assistance desks or help buttons. Looking at the Gatwick Airport PRM special assistance page you can even see the way in which less attention is even given to the website and this might perhaps reflect the findings I have coem across in talking with mobility restricted passengers.
Many airports do now have dedicated telephone lines (an example on the Cardiff International airport site) and by searching an airport website under the word ‘disabled’ you can normally find the appropriate information. The term ‘accessible travel’ is preferred by many people with disabilities, but I recommend to search by the word ‘disabled’ if you want to have the best chance to retrieve information on the airport (and also airline) websites.
In European airports, you have a legal right to certain help such as help with navigating through the airport, toilet access and help with checking-in and accessing the airport. Help with movement between connecting flights is also a provision which should be made for you.
You are advised to call the airline you will be flying with, at least a few days before your date of departure. Many airlines tend to have only a set number of wheelchairs available (sometimes 3 for example) and it is thus important to inform the airline before-hand. The airline can also inform you of any special requirements and guide you in advance of your trip. In order to be legally expected to fully aid you, informing the airline 48 hours in advance is the minimum requirement.
One common question which often comes up and which one can easily appreciate the reason for it being asked, is about the situation with regards to navigating through airport security as a disabled traveller. Each country can differ slightly in the exact requirements but certainly in UK airports, EVERY one must go through security if they wish to fly and that does include disabled and mobility challenged travellers.
If you are partly or fully blind, you do have a right to travel with your guide dog. There are though certain restrictions in respect of quarantine laws and whilst airlines are legally obliged to allow you to travel with your guide dog if the dog passes are quarantine requirements and provided you have the full documentation, without meeting these requirements, your dog cannot travel. Within the European Union, the rules at the time of writing included the need for a:
Some studies have looked at the problems faced by disabled people in airports and one particularly interesting study by Kwai-sang Yau (2004) makes the interesting point that disabled travellers tend to be a disproportionately highly loyal group when it comes to repeat business in relation to tourism service providers. Given the difficulties sometimes faced, such as hotels without a lift (elevator) or ramp which a wheelchair can be pushed up, disabled tourists seem place greater value on service providers who do get things right. Be warned if you are an airline or airport authority! Another report, this one National Council on Disabilities found that one of the biggest airline problems is requested wheelchairs being delayed or non-existing at all.
Kwai-sang Yau also found in her research that one of the biggest problems faced by disabled traveller’s who were flying was that staff were not trained in handling wheelchairs and this resulted in several people reporting in the research that their wheelchairs were damaged in the process of flying.
There are travel insurance policies which are designed to insure disabled travellers and such a policy factors in the unique needs such as protection for a wheelchair against damage or theft. For specialised disability travel insurance then Fish Insurance is the company we recommend to get a quote from.
Kwai-sang Yau.M., McKercher.B. and Packer.T. (2004). Travelling with a Disability. Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 31, No. 4, 2004.