Executive Summary

Disabled people can only enjoy freedom if supported by reasonable adjustments and accommodating attitudes. The airlines and connected staff have an important role in our freedom of movement. Without their support we are denied this basic human right.
Baroness Jane Campbell

Executive Summary

The purpose of this report is to stimulate debate among all airline stakeholders. It contains a number of recommendations that we believe would improve the overall customer experience. Some of the issues highlighted and recommendations made are not totally within the delivery remit of OCS but will require a new focus from the whole industry working collaboratively to improve certain aspects of the customer journey.

The report contains verbatim responses, statistical evidence, customer narratives and case examples. The report is written from the perspective of the individual and illustrates real experiences. It looks at what people feel is their current experience and what they would like it to be.

In total, the views of 534 disabled people were gathered between February 2015 and November 2015. The report was compiled in January 2016.

This report is published as an interim report to enable further consultation and feedback on the proposed recommendations. To join in and add further feedback, please go to www.challengingforchange.com

There were a number of very positive findings from the research:

The respondents who pre-booked assistance reported a high level of satisfaction with the Passenger Assistance Service. People who were frequent flyers reported that the process for booking passenger assistance has improved in recent years and that awareness of reasonable adjustments has also improved.

However, the research findings also highlighted several problematic areas, in particular in the handling of expensive specialised Electric Mobility Aids (EMAs). The findings raised an issue with the language used in the regulations of ‘PRM’ (Persons with reduced mobility) and an assumption that all passengers booking assistance need to use a wheelchair. Many respondents who do not need a wheelchair reported a lack of awareness about their particular assistance need. The acronyms ‘assigned’ by the airline industry to categories of disability do not always convey enough information on the needs of the passenger. The use of these acronyms can contribute to misinformation being shared on passenger needs (see Appendix 1).

A significant finding was that access barriers do not just relate to physical access or mobility restrictions. Travel for people who have autism, dementia, cognitive loss due to a stroke, hearing loss and sight loss is particularly daunting. The respondents with non-visible disabilities reported higher feelings of anxiety and stress when using an airport.

Respondents indicated a lack of knowledge of the correct booking process. Frequent flyers who have become very savvy with the process know how to book, and how to get the service they want, these customers also report a high level of satisfaction. However, those respondents who are not frequent flyers demonstrated lack of knowledge of the booking process and reported higher levels of dissatisfaction with the level of Passenger Assistance Service.

There is a worrying level of lack of confidence in the Passenger Assistance Service. Approximately one-third of respondents were uncertain that their access needs would be met.

The biggest cause of dissatisfaction centred on personal equipment, especially electric wheel chairs, not being handled correctly, getting damaged or simply not being returned to the aircraft in a timely fashion.

Scooter users also raised the issue around communication and information around the correct handling of scooters and having them returned to the aircraft doors. Levels of awareness of the Passenger Assistance Service varied across demographics. Younger passengers and frequent flyers tend to be more aware of the process. The findings indicate that many disabled passengers simply do not know that they have to inform the airline 48 hours before travelling of their assistance needs.

The findings of the research naturally challenge the industry to bring about several changes.

The first priority for airlines must be to get more passengers to pre-book assistance. The airlines must make sure that the information that disabled people need is clearly visible on the home page of their website. There should be more obvious triggers throughout the booking process to pick up anyone who needs assistance. This will enable service providers to accommodate customers better and more accurately predict the number of customers they need to help at any given time.

The second priority has to be to gather more specific information on the needs of disabled customers. There is a wide range of impairments, however there is a perception that the Passenger Assistance Service focuses on wheelchair users. A priority for all airports should be the development of a clear policy about the handling of EMAs. This must include the service provider ensuring EMAs are brought to the aircraft doors and delivering staff training on the importance of handling EMAs correctly. This issue is the main cause of complaints about the Passenger Assistance Service. It causes the most distress and carries high cost implications. A big issue seems to be that the majority of the handling of EMAs is carried out by baggage handling staff who do not normally interface with customers and do not receive any disability awareness training. These people are likely to be unaware of the complexity of many EMAs.

The industry should collaborate to create an App and priority booking process for disabled passengers that is consistent and global. This App should enable passengers to share access information just the once, be kept informed proactively about their booking, reward pre-booking and give access to airport lounges. Respondents indicated that they would join a priority-booking scheme.

Disabled passengers reported the need for more reassurance during the travel process. More use should be made of text messaging to keep in constant contact with disabled customers to help minimize the worries of abandonment and equipment breakages.

Airports should consider offering lounges for disabled passengers offering retail stores and refreshments. The whole waiting experience in departures for some disabled people is isolating and humiliating, and the airports should be working harder to improve the whole customer journey. This is a missed business opportunity and airports should be challenged to view disabled people more as customers. Web accessibility is absolutely essential now that most people are booking their flights online directly with the airline. The airline industry should be challenged to commission an independent audit of web access standards, publish their findings and keep this process under review.

The allocation of an IATA code (see Appendix 1) provides essential information and yet the codes are narrowly defined and can hinder the Passenger Assistance Service. Not having the correct coding is one of the biggest single causes of problems for disabled passengers and indeed the service provider. The industry should revisit these codes and update them to ensure that travel agents, call centre staff and all others responsible for the booking process are fully aware of and trained in the correct use of IATA codes.

It is also important to give disabled passengers more information about their journey. This should include accessible travel options to/from airports. It is important for airport websites to include clear information about the facilities and services they have available and, in particular, about the distances that may need to be travelled between arrival at the airport and the departure gates. Information about distances can be very helpful in enabling the disabled passenger to judge whether they can manage without assistance or whether they will need help. For those travelling between a large and small airport, it may be the case that assistance is needed at one end of the journey and not the other. Information should be given in a clear and standard format. For example, it is unhelpful to give a walking time to a departure gate without also specifying distance so that those with walking difficulty can make their own judgement. Without this information, people may book assistance they do not need–or arrive unaware that they will need help. Either eventuality causes delays and costs to the airline, places strain on airport resources and inconveniences the passenger.

Airports should include on their websites information about accessible public transport links as well as details of accessible parking and drop off/pick up for disabled drivers and passengers.

It would be helpful to have clearer identification at the airport of the services and facilities that they provide and who is responsible for them. Such information should be posted widely, including in places such as designated Passenger Assistance waiting areas.

The waiting areas should also make it clear how the passenger can get more information and make a complaint. It is confusing to have an airline, airport, Passenger Assistance and a baggage handler all involved in providing touch points for the passenger.

Passenger Assistance providers should be given very detailed training in all aspects of the assistance that is needed as well as in practical skills, including lifting and handling. They should also be fully trained in safe handling of all equipment needed to assist disabled passengers. Awareness training should cover all impairments with attention paid to dementia, autism, learning difficulties, visual loss and hearing loss.

Processes should be consistent at each airport. The findings indicated that each airport has a different way of delivering the service. A classic example is the handling of the documentation for an assistance dog. Each airline has a slightly different booking process. This research highlighted that different airports have different processes for checking the dog’s documentation. There was a definite lack of training by staff on interaction with an assistance dog.

There was a major issue at security checkpoints for disabled people. This process is complex and everyone accepts security is paramount. However, the staff at security appeared to have lower levels of disability confidence. To help passengers pass through security, more advance information would be helpful. For example, passengers with assistance dogs should be given advice on water, food, harnesses and passing through security.

The report looked at some industry statistics and concludes that people with a disability or reduced mobility are significantly less likely to have flown in the last 12 months when compared with the general UK population. Many respondents reported fearing that travel arrangements will go wrong and opting not to fly.