Provision for disabled travellers varies, but travel buyers have a duty-of-care to ensure their safety. Bob Papworth looks at the issue of accessible travel
The Right Honourable Tobias Ellwood MP – famously hailed as a hero for attempting to save the life of PC Keith Palmer, who was fatally stabbed during the March 22 terror attack on London’s Westminster Bridge – has done quite a lot of globetrotting, to put it mildly.
The parliamentary under-secretary of state in the Ministry of Defence was born in New York, grew up in Bonn and Vienna, and served with the Royal Green Jackets, reaching the rank of captain, in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Kuwait, Germany, Gibraltar and Bosnia. In his previous parliamentary role at the Foreign Office, he travelled extensively in the Middle East and Africa.
Down here in Dorset, where he represents Bournemouth East’s constituents – your correspondent among them – he is celebrated for a rather more humdrum travel-related achievement. Thanks to his active support, the five-year campaign to reinstate the lifts at Pokesdown station has finally been won. Under the terms of its franchise, Southwest Trains has until 2019 to get the blasted things working again.
For the hordes of relatively sprightly visiting fans who come to gloat over AFC Bournemouth’s dismal premiership performance – Pokesdown is a ten-minute walk from the Cherries’ Vitality Stadium – the 40-plus steep steps from platform to street level do not present much of a challenge.
For the less-than-sprightly (your correspondent, again, among them) they’re a veritable nightmare. For anyone in a wheelchair, they are simply impossible. (BBT’s handy hint of the month – get off at user-friendly Christchurch and catch the ramp-equipped P1 bus.)
OK, so it’s only a snapshot, but it does highlight the potentially unforeseen challenges facing travellers with “reduced mobility” – only 8 per cent of whom, according to research conducted for the UK’s National Coastal Tourism Academy (NCTA), are wheelchair users – and in the corporate world, consequently, for travel managers.
Mobility – or lack of it – isn’t the only problem. Even the marginally poor-sighted (your correspondent among them, yet again) have problems distinguishing between hotel toiletries and end up washing their hair with moisturiser, while the hard of hearing may struggle with inflight announcements.
To a very large extent, it’s a supply-side issue. Aircraft aisles and loos aren’t generally what one might describe as accessible; even for the most astute and able-bodied, airports are universally baffling; train operators are pretty good, while most rail stations are pretty awful; many hotel lifts have floor numbers in Braille, but very few room numbers get the same ‘dotty’ treatment – you know you’re on the third floor, but the precise location of room 327 remains a mystery.
Travel managers don’t get off the hook that easily, however. Duty-of-care takes on a whole new meaning if a traveller has so-called ‘special needs’. It’s not just a question of sourcing appropriate suppliers, but also of circumventing the legal quagmire around discrimination, positive or otherwise.
If one staff member has particular requirements – a taxi transfer to or from an airport, for example – can others be denied the same ‘privileges’? The simple answer is, probably not.
There is another fly in the travel management ointment. As one travel buyer puts it: “The trouble is that people with disabilities don’t like to be singled out – in many cases they want to be treated just like everyone else. They want to integrate, to be recognised as part of a team. Disability isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a stigma – just because you have some sort of physical constraint, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t contribute.
“It’s like the old argument about female business travellers, most of whom don’t want to be singled out for ‘special’ treatment.”
Complying with EU law
Under European Union law, airlines cannot refuse to carry passengers, or to take bookings, on the basis of reduced mobility, except in the case of “justified safety reasons” or where the aircraft simply can’t accommodate the passenger concerned. In the latter case, according to the UK’s Department for Transport, airlines must offer reimbursement or re-routing.
Assistance dogs must also be carried free of charge, and necessary equipment – such as wheelchairs – cannot count against the regular luggage allowance.
Airport authorities across the EU are obliged to provide assistance without extra cost to the person concerned, and to ensure that similar assistance is available at the destination airport (see panel, below). Both airport authorities and airlines are obliged to give their staff training so that those providing direct assistance to people with disabilities and reduced mobility should know how to meet their needs.
Hotels are a different kettle of fish – or, more accurately, a can of worms. Hotels are not obliged to meet the needs of disabled guests, which puts the burden on the travel manager to source accommodation which suits the traveller’s specific needs.
Travellers with reduced ability may be able to manage a short flight of steps but not a staircase. Not all lifts are big enough to take a wheelchair, and hotel room – and bathroom – doors may be too narrow. Subdued lighting in restaurants may create an ambience, but for the visually impaired it simply renders the menu unreadable.
Accomable, founded in 2015 by Srin Madipalli and Martyn Sibley – two friends with spinal muscular atrophy – now lists around 1,100 ‘accessible’ properties in 60 countries worldwide, while charitable organisations such as Scope can provide additional information.
If all else fails, one could do worse than get in touch with the Right Honourable member for Bournemouth East – if he can help fix the lifts at a local railway station while holding down a top job at the Ministry of Defence, who knows what else he can do?
Counting the cost
According to the Office for Disability Issues (ODI), part of the Department for Work & Pensions, there are more than 11 million people with “limiting impairments” in the UK, one-fifth of whom say they have difficulty in accessing transport.
The US Census Bureau reckons that more than 50 million US citizens have some form of disability, half of whom claim their impairment is “severe”. Meanwhile, the disabled-world.com website puts the global figure at more than 1 billion people.
The disability charity Scope quotes the Extra Costs Commission’s Interim Technical Report 2015 on the consumer habits of disabled people. The report calculated that UK businesses lose around £1.8 billion a month as a result of poor customer service when it comes to the disabled and lack of disability awareness.
CAA outs under-performing airports
Four UK airports, including Heathrow and Manchester, have been ordered by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to improve the services they provide to the growing number of passengers who need some form of assistance.
The CAA reviewed assistance facilities and services at the country’s top 30 airports, six of which – Humberside, Birmingham and Norwich in England, and Inverness, Glasgow and Prestwick in Scotland – were rated “very good”.
Of the rest, 20 were deemed to be “good”, while Heathrow, Manchester, East Midlands and Exeter were branded “poor” and told they must improve. Where airports regularly under-perform, the CAA can take enforcement action to compel them to up their game.
“Those with ‘very good’ and ‘good’ ratings have performed well in areas such as customer satisfaction, waiting times and engagement with disability organisations,” the CAA says.
The CAA’s framework – the first of its kind in Europe – was introduced to ensure there is a consistent and high-quality service for disabled passengers across UK airports. The CAA assesses airports against a number of measures to establish how well they are performing for the disabled.
The authority’s report reveals that the number of people with a disability requesting extra help when travelling by air continues to grow significantly and has now reached over three million journeys in 2016 – a rise of over 66 per cent since 2010.
Richard Moriarty, CAA director of consumers and markets, said: “UK aviation should be proud that it continues to serve a rapid increase in the number of passengers with a disability. Our surveys, along with the airports’ own studies, have shown high levels of satisfaction among disabled passengers and we have seen some examples of excellent service where assistance is well organised and delays are minimal.
“However, East Midlands, Exeter, Heathrow and Manchester have fallen short of our expectations and we have secured commitments from them to make improvements. We will monitor their implementation over the coming months to make sure that services for passengers with a disability or reduced mobility continue to improve.”
Transport secretary Chris Grayling, said: “It is vital that everyone can access and use transport services, and the CAA is doing excellent work around this. It is encouraging to see the overwhelming majority of UK airports providing a good service for passengers with a disability, but I am determined to push the aviation industry to do more.
“As part of our aviation strategy, we will consult on ways to make aviation more accessible for people with both visible and hidden disabilities, such as dementia, autism, loss of sight or hearing, as well as age-related conditions. I also want everyone to take part in the upcoming consultation on our draft Accessibility Action Plan which will look at what more can be done across the entire transport network.”
Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators’ Association (AOA), said: “Everyone deserves to travel with confidence and without worries. That is why ensuring that all passengers, especially passengers who need extra assistance, have a pleasant and smooth journey when they are flying is a priority for UK airports.
“The CAA’s report shows that UK airports are leading the way on helping passengers with additional needs. There is no better testament that airports are getting this increasingly right than the huge growth we have seen since 2010 in the number of people travelling by air who require additional assistance.
“There is always more that can be done. Airports will build on the good work so far and work with airlines and other partners to continue to improve the travel experience of people with physical and hidden disabilities or other additional needs.”