Personal stories and customer journeys
Tanyalee. I use a scooter.
A few years ago I flew from Heathrow to Edinburgh. I checked in and I was told to go to ‘passenger assistance’. When staff finally approached me they insisted I transfer into a wheelchair to be taken to the plane. They then said my scooter would be taken down from that area. I was quite alarmed, I didn’t want to be separated from my scooter for fear it wouldn’t make it on the flight. They kept insisting. It is not very easy for me to get into a wheelchair and I hate being pushed around when I am capable of getting myself where I need to be. I was reassured my scooter would be fine.
Upon arrival in Edinburgh I was told once again I needed to get into a wheelchair to be taken to baggage claim to reunite with my scooter. It never showed up. Apparently it was not on the flight but it would be coming on the next flight. I waited a few hours and the next flight arrived but no scooter appeared. This time the scooter was on the flight but they were saying it was too heavy to take off the plane and was on its way back to London. WHAT I said!!.???
I was sitting in a wheelchair. I was in Edinburgh for the fringe and I had meetings and technical rehearsals set up so I needed to be on my way but without my scooter they had stripped me of my independence. Airport staff told me I could use one of the airport wheelchairs until my scooter situation was resolved. How the heck am I supposed to wheel myself in a wheelchair?
I had to phone a friend in the city to come pick me up from the airport. I was told by staff that the scooter was too heavy so it was sent back to London to be loaded into a cargo pallet, which could then be taken off the plane by a machine or something. This was ridiculous. The scooter is about 48 kg and comes apart in 4 pieces, the heaviest piece being 11 kg. I had arrived into Edinburgh at 13:00. My scooter was delivered to my hotel at 1 am.
I received no apology or compensation for the huge inconvenience and stripping me of my independence.
What airport staff must realise is that your own mobility aids are your independence. They are personal to your needs. They are not pieces of equipment to fall foul of health and safety rules. Common sense and human decency need to be the priority.
I am …
I have a rare bone condition that means I cannot stand and require a wheelchair to get around. I enjoy travelling and fly often to Europe and the US. I need customer service to help me check in, to navigate security and to help me with my luggage.
When I fly, I tend to take my manual wheelchair because it’s conveniently light and it folds, so it can be easily stored in the hold of the plane. On the whole I’m very happy with the airport assistance I have received over the years in the UK. Airport staff are friendly and welcoming and try to accommodate me with a suitable end of aisle seat.
When I need to catch a connecting flight at Gatwick Airport, a member of the assistance team is always ready waiting to whisk me off to the departure gate. Having reached my destination airport my wheelchair has always been safely and promptly delivered back to me.
However, there was just the one occasion when a rubber wheel-trim went missing (it clips onto my wheels and it helps me to propel and push myself). Assistance staff at Gatwick airport said they had not realised what it was but luckily when I explained, it was quickly found and returned. I believe this was due to a lack of training and that staff would benefit from more training.
Wheelchairs are not only expensive but they are essentially our legs and need to be handled with great care!
I also have a powered electric wheelchair, which I prefer as it’s more comfortable and I enjoy the independence that it brings. Ideally I’d like to take it with me when we fly abroad but I have some reservations, having heard a disabled friend had had a bad experience when he discovered that his powered wheelchair had been damaged during a recent flight to the US.
I hope with more care and training that it will become standard practice that disabled people can enjoy their flight knowing that their powered wheelchair will be safe and in working order when they reach their destination.
Also the next generation of aircraft needs to take into account the needs of wheelchair users. For example getting in and out of the toilet is problematic and wider doors would be a great help.
OCS asked me to spend a day at Gatwick Airport with my assistance dog Molly.
I am the Empowerment Officer for Scope. I have cerebral palsy, I have some loss of vision and I use a hearing aid. I use a large electric mobility scooter and I have my assistance dog Molly to help me.
I drove myself to Gatwick. Parking wasn’t too bad but the signs to the accessible bays could have been more prominent. The first problem I encountered was with the call for assistance phone. The phone had a receiver that you had to pick up. But with my large scooter pulled up alongside and my dog I could not lift the receiver and dial a number. This would be better as a big push button that automatically connects you to an operator. Once inside the airport I made my way to the Passenger Assistance area to check in. The paper work for Molly was not checked. We proceeded to go to the flight check-in desk. The counter here was too high for me. The staff were helpful, however, and came round to help me. They made the cardinal error of fussing over Molly. Despite the fuss and attention to Molly no one checked her passport and microchip.
Security presented a few challenges. We did use the priority lane but no one told me in advance about having to empty pockets and of course as an assistance dog user I always have a pocket full of treats. I wasn’t clear about being able to carry water and food for Molly. Taking my jacket off at security was also difficult. No one asked to see Molly’s passport.
Once through security, off we went to enjoy the airport. No one offered me water for Molly. I asked about letting Molly use the toilet area and no one really knew where this was located. There was no information in the Passenger Assistance waiting area. But everyone continued to fuss Molly!
We then made our way to the gate. There was a lift to navigate and I always get concerned that there is not a lot of room for my scooter, Molly, the assistant and me. I always have to tell people to look out for Molly’s tail in the lift doors. I worry it will get trapped as the sensors don’t allow for a dog. Once at the gate, the small lift there meant I had to use the lift on my own and let the assistant take Molly down the stairs. No one asked me if I had everything I needed for Molly although I do know this is my responsibility to have the right harness and bowls etc.
Prior to this day I hadn’t appreciated I could take my scooter right up to the aircraft doors and that it would be waiting for me at the aircraft doors on arrival.
OCS asked me to spend a day at Manchester Airport. I am a professional wheelchair ballroom dancer. I compete all over the world. I fly regularly and I have a very expensive custom-made wheelchair designed specifically for me.
I had occasion to complain to OCS so they invited me to explain the issues. We were flying from Berlin Schoneberg to Liverpool with easyJet. At first I just got told there was no Ambulift and that I would be carried up on an aisle chair. I stated this was not safe as it did not have sufficient strapping to stop me falling sideways or to strap my legs if I got a spasm while being carried. Within five minutes of saying this, by magic the Ambulift was brought out however, shortly after they then said the airport would not permit them to use it as it was too windy. Conditions at the airport did not seem that bad we've been at airports with very windy conditions (Manchester is a prime example) and never had this issue. I refused on safety grounds to use the aisle chair, both for mine and the ground crew safety so ended up having to crawl up the stairs on my bottom. Not very dignified at all.
It all really starts to go wrong at the booking stage when you are trying to explain what your needs are. It’s so frustrating that I have to do this every time I fly. Either the wrong code is allocated to you or the wrong equipment turns up. My biggest bugbear is that my wheelchair often fails to turn up at the aircraft when I am ready to disembark. If the chair does not arrive fear begins to grow inside because you panic that your chair is broken. You know that OCS staff have been trained and understand the importance of your chair but have the ground-handling agents also been trained? At Manchester in particular there is a lot of blame passing.
This labyrinth of contracts blurs transparency, making it hard to get a good end-to- end customer service.
We recently organized a dance completion in the UK and eight wheelchair users flew in, of which seven had a problem.
My customer journey around Manchester airport was very interesting. It highlighted that thought had clearly been given to the access needs of wheelchair users; however, it was not quite as easy to use as one would hope. The counters are not at wheelchair accessible height, making it slightly awkward.
On the occasion when I had to be taken to baggage reclaim to collect my own wheelchair it’s really embarrassing, as the chairs do not have side transfer. The aisle chairs on the plane do allow for side transfer, which is easier and more dignified. Self-transfer is always best. The chairs used in the airport always force you to be lifted.
Disabled people always get conflicting messages. Some airlines for example say they will charge for a second chair but I know that you can take two pieces of medical equipment.
The challenge is to get the industry as a whole to develop transparent, easy to use, consistent procedures.
(Simon) I would say things have improved greatly in terms of travelling with a mobility scooter and using LHR. The scooter, 9 times out of 10 does come back to me at the plane door on arrival without too much hassle. I do however have to tell people, no one ever comes to me and says it will be there despite a lot of form filling prior to the flight. The staff, both at check in and then on board the plane, always seemed as if they’ve never come across someone travelling with a mobility scooter and most times I have to educate them so there’s certainly a need for ongoing training. The new regs for mobility scooters (since the battery spark scare) have made things more organised. That said, the three-party set up means they are all happy to pass the buck to someone else, be it the airline, OCS or BAA. Consistency and taking responsibility would help. When things do go wrong, I refuse to leave the plane, which is what the airline staff want as I’m then no longer their responsibility. If I stay on, and therefore slow down the turnaround process, they engage much more. As a customer, my money goes to the airline and so I feel they should take the lead–the fact that they then pay BAA who presumably then pay OCS isn’t the issue for me.
(Helen) As I was about to board the flight I was told that it was against their policy to assist me during the flight to the toilet. Obviously this is not the case. They had taken my booking, knew I was a chair user, knew I was travelling on my own and had assisted me twice during the flight out. Why were they now telling me this was against their policy. Cabin Services Director (CSD) was absolutely adamant that this was their policy. I was already at the plane door, sitting on an aisle chair; the CSD talked to the person pushing me, airport staff, rather than to myself and I felt totally out of control. I continued to say that I couldn’t get on the flight without being able to get to the toilet. Finally, I was informed that another member of staff had ‘kindly offered’ to assist me on this occasion. At which point I agreed to board the plane. Clearly this shouldn’t have happened.
(Jane) The assistance hadn’t been booked on the way out and we were kept waiting for ages at the check-in desk whilst this was sorted out. This was despite my calling a few days in advance to book this. On the way back, the assistance again hadn’t been booked at Heathrow. The ground staff asked my husband if there was any way that he could assist. Since we had already been waiting for 20 minutes we decided that my husband would carry me off the plane. This was totally humiliating and again lacking any dignity and respect.
(Fleur) We flew to Morocco for Christmas with the boys and my mother-in-law. We arrived at Stanstead at 6.00 am in the morning to chaos–no check-in system so people were just jostling to the front–it was a challenge to check in and keep up with Ben. On arrival at Morocco, we were asked to fill in visa forms in the arrival lounge (not sure why we couldn’t have done this on the plane). While we were trying to fill in the forms and queue to go through passport control, Ben managed to wrench his hand away and ran hell for leather through passport control and was last seen heading for the baggage reclaim conveyor belt. Of course the guard didn’t speak English, but luckily I was so hysterical he also waved me through so I guess I entered Morocco illegally.