As an accessible travel blogger, I share many of my experiences as a power wheelchair user to raise awareness of accessibility and the barriers disabled people face while travelling. I always aim to share positive experiences but I will never sugarcoat the bad.
For instance, you may remember our awful experience with special assistance at London City Airport ( LCY) two years ago when I had to use the stairclimber to get on and off the plane.
Well, we reluctantly travelled to and from London City Airport again recently and although I didn’t have to endure the stairclimber this time, sadly accessibility and the overall experience as a disabled passenger at LCY still hasn’t improved.
Read more: London City Airport Special Assistance
I’ve debated whether to even write this post as I don’t have anything good to report. But I feel it’s important and has to be said.
We all know that travelling with a disability can be challenging and unfortunately, there are worse stories than mine. But despite the challenges, there is generally a solution and in my experience, it’s usually worth it in the end once you visit your dream destination.
That doesn’t mean airlines and airport staff can be excused for their poor treatment of disabled travellers and their mobility aids. They must do better. A great deal better. Undergoing continuous disability awareness training is one of the areas they need to focus on.
Our Experience with Special Assistance at Edinburgh Airport & London City Airport
Edinburgh is the nearest airport to where we live so it’s our main airport and we’ve become very familiar with it. So it was our first preference when we recently travelled from Edinburgh Airport to London for a work trip. On the whole, we’ve had more good experiences than bad. Some of the special assistance staff even recognise us now.
This was our first flight in almost two years due to the pandemic, so we were understandably anxious about flying during this time. This made it all the more frustrating that both the outbound and inbound journeys were such a nightmare from beginning to end.
I hoped to keep this brief, but so many things went wrong that I feel I need to share everything. I’m going to focus on the main five failings of special assistance at Edinburgh Airport & London City Airport based on my own personal experience as a full time power wheelchair user.
1. Poor Staff Attitudes
Disabled people often have to plan and call ahead to check accessibility for a simple day out. But when going on holiday there is so much more to consider and plan.
We may be feeling extra anxious when we arrive at the airport. We want to feel at ease and reassured by airport staff that everything is taken care of.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t our experience when we arrived at the special assistance check-in desk at Edinburgh Airport. As I handed over my boarding pass, the agent pulled up my details on his computer and without speaking to me, picked up the phone and called his colleague and asked them “Do you want the good news or the bad news?”.
He was obviously referring to me which made me feel uncomfortable and a little suspicious. He was acting like we weren’t there in front of him.
Once he had finished his conversation, he told us that I hadn’t made a special assistance request. Very confidently I told him the request was made and I had confirmation.
However, he was adamant I hadn’t, telling me it was very unlikely I would receive assistance to board the plane and that the ambulift had not been booked.
An ambulift is a vehicle used to board disabled passengers with reduced mobility, wheelchair users and elderly passengers.
In this situation, he failed to listen to us. Failed to understand. Failed to help resolve the issue. Instead, he left us worrying we wouldn’t receive the assistance required to get on our flight.
As we turned to leave the special assistance office, he said to us sarcastically “you better go now as you’re probably not going to make it on time.”
2. Lack of Communication
This was the first time we’ve been told we might not receive special assistance to board, which understandably made us panic. Imagine the scene from Home Alone as Kevin and his family are running through the airport because they are going to miss their flight.
Well, that was Allan and me, minus running on my part. I was giving Lewis Hamilton a run for his money with my driving skills.
We rushed through the airport security and arrived at an empty boarding gate. No one was there. Did we miss the flight? We felt utterly deflated.
After a few minutes, the British Airways check-in agent arrived at the gate. We hadn’t missed the flight at all, but no one was there to assist us. I was still feeling unsure, but the British Airways agent assured me that my special assistance request was booked on the system and the ambulift wasn’t required because the jet bridge was being used instead.
Allan and I were told to make our own way down to the plane and wait for special assistance to arrive. This didn’t feel right, but we were assured it was fine.
Five minutes later as I’m sitting in my power wheelchair at the door of the plane, one person arrived to assist. The cabin crew wanted to deny us pre-boarding and began instructing the rest of the passengers who began queuing on the jet bridge to board before us.
After a discussion between Allan and the cabin crew, they reluctantly agreed to let us board before the rest of the passengers. If Allan hadn’t spoken up, they would have pushed us aside and denied us preboarding. We require more time to board and this is easier and more dignified when passengers aren’t already on the plane.
Airline carriers must offer preboarding to passengers with a disability who self-identify at the gate as needing additional time or assistance to board.
Finally, another special assistance agent arrived and we both recognised each other from previous flights. They helped me to my seat on the plane, efficiently and professionally. No complaints there.
3. Mishandling Mobility Aids
As I boarded the plane, Allan began preparing my wheelchair before it was taken down to the hold. He removed the footplates, seat cushion and joystick. We take them on the plane with us to prevent them from being damaged or lost.
We always use our aviation approved ‘Airsafe Power Inhibit Plug’ which is a quick, easy and safe way to immobilise power wheelchairs for transportation on the aircraft. The airsafe key means there’s no need to disassemble or disconnect cables or the wheelchair battery which is usually a faff and can be difficult to do.
Due to past experiences of ground crew ignoring the airsafe key and manually disconnecting the battery themselves, Allan spent a lot of time explaining to the special assistance agents and ground crew what the airsafe does, where it goes and how much hassle it causes us when we arrive at our destination and discover cables have been pulled apart.
In this instance, the pilot was also there as Allan had been called down to the hold to help the ground crew who were having issues fitting my wheelchair through the hold door. Allan more or less pleaded with them not to remove any cables on my wheelchair.
Unfortunately, that was all a waste of time as when we arrived at London City Airport and they brought my wheelchair to me we could see that Edinburgh Airport had completely ignored everything Allan said.
All the cables had been pulled apart and were dragging on the ground. There was no easy way of knowing where they went. They also snapped the cover that protects the cables and batteries from getting wet etc.
If that wasn’t stressful enough, they insisted on transferring me from the aisle chair into my ‘power-less’ wheelchair on the tarmac. They pressured Allan to reconnect the cables as quickly as possible, but the ground crew at Edinburgh Airport created such a mess that it was impossible to see how to fix it.
At this point, I was still sitting in the uncomfortable aisle chair (I’ll come back to this issue) but it was too loud and too cold outside so we told them to take us inside where Allan could calmly fix my wheelchair. They agreed, reluctantly.
This caused us to be further delayed while the rest of the passengers continued on their journeys. They most likely had already left the airport, while we were stuck dealing with the mess baggage handlers caused by mishandling my wheelchair.
It is not acceptable and should not be happening. Despite correctly preparing my power wheelchair and using aviation approved safety plug as well as instructing the ground crew on how to handle my wheelchair, they still mishandled it, ignoring our clear instructions and potentially causing damage to my wheelchair.
Carelessly pulling out cables without knowing what they are doing or what the cable is for, is dangerous and irresponsible. This causes wheelchair users and potentially people with them a great amount of unnecessary stress and inconvenience. We simply don’t need that!
A few months ago well-known disability rights advocate Engracia Figueroa, died after being hospitalised as a result of an airline destroying her custom wheelchair. This is heartbreaking and her death was avoidable. Airlines and airports must do better.
4. Unsuitable Airport Equipment
For many wheelchair users, myself included, being able to remain in our wheelchairs during air travel would be life-changing. This is something that PriestmanGoode, Flying Disabled and SWS Certification aim to achieve with the Air For All seating system. The lock and securement system will allow wheelchair users to fly without having to come out of their own wheelchairs.
There are two pieces of airport equipment in particular that I’m going to talk about; aisle chairs and ambulifts.
The following is based on my experience of using both at London City Airport and why I think they are inadequate.
Until wheelchair users can remain in their wheelchairs on an aircraft, we must leave our comfortable, custom made, fully supportive wheelchairs at the plane door, then transfer into a narrow aisle chair with very little support and then sit on an uncomfortable and unsupportive seat on the aircraft.
Many wheelchair users, myself included require postural support which is something we don’t have when sitting in a regular aircraft seat.
After twenty minutes I’m already in pain and counting down the hours until I’m reunited with my wheelchair again.
When we arrived at London City Airport, I was keen to deplane as soon as possible. Once all the passengers had left, one special assistance agent arrived to help assist me off the plane. I require at least two people to transfer me. Thankfully I had Allan with me so he helped.
As the special assistance agent wheeled the aisle chair up to me, I instantly noticed the chair didn’t have a headrest or armrests. I have no neck or trunk control so I really need a headrest to prevent my head from falling back and armrests to keep me from leaning to the side.
This was an issue I brought up with London City Airport almost two years and they still haven’t improved their aisle chairs. The lack of head support was particularly dangerous when I used the stairclimber and it was tipped backwards to go up and down the aircraft steps.
Fortunately, the aisle chair had belts and a footplate. But the footplate was terrible and due to the angle and low seat to footplate height, my legs couldn’t position properly which meant my feet were unable to stay on the footplate. My knees were physically unable to bend back no more than they already were.
When the aisle chair was moving I struggled to keep my feet on the footplate so they wouldn’t drag on the ground, but it caused my feet to point down towards the ground like a ballet dancer. This in turn caused my ankles to ache and feel like they were breaking.
We were taken onto the small ambulift where I thought my wheelchair would be. Every time I’ve used an ambulift at other airports, I’ve been able to transfer in and out of my wheelchair inside the ambulift because it’s a large area and allows minimal time in the aisle chair.
But at London City Airport the ambulift is too small. There was barely enough room for me (in the aisle chair), Allan and two airport staff. The ambulift lowered to the ground from the cabin door and we waited for my wheelchair to be brought to us. That’s when we discovered Edinburgh Airport had ripped out the cables.
Airports need to provide aisle chairs with adequate support for disabled passengers like myself who need more postural support. A headrest should be a standard feature on aisle chairs, but it seems it’s considered a luxury.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to rest my head on the special assistance agents stomachs because there is no other way of supporting my head. This isn’t something I want to do especially in a covid world.
Aisle chairs should also have armrests and footplates that fold up/down.
On our return flight from London City, the special assistance agents again transferred me from my wheelchair into the aisle chair on the tarmac. The noise from the aircraft makes it very difficult to communicate how I need to be lifted, where I hurt and what support I need.
Do they even consider the weather when transferring disabled passengers in/out of aisle chairs in the middle of the tarmac? What if it’s raining, snowing, or a thunderstorm? Do we just get soaked and freeze?
5. Lack of Disability Training
The final straw was when we arrived back at Edinburgh Airport. As we sat on the plane waiting for the final passenger to leave, two special assistance agents approached us. Immediately I recognised one of them from a few days earlier when we checked in at Edinburgh Airport.
The same person who told us there was no special assistance booked for me and delivered the “bad news” to his colleagues about my arrival. This time he was speaking into his radio about my wheelchair.
He turns to me and asks if I can use an airport manual wheelchair and self-transfer. I say no to both questions. But he asks again as if doubting me. I explained that I need my own power wheelchair and that I need it brought up to the door of the plane.
“Apparently she needs her own chair brought up” he says into his radio. This goes on and on. Back and forth via his radio. Then Allan is asked if he is going to lift to me, but I’m using my ableMove sling so we explain how they can lift me by holding onto the handles.
The ableMove sling is quick, easy and much safer. Watch the video of me using ableMove sling in action.
Again, he asks if I can stand or self-transfer across the seat into the aisle chair. And again I explain to him that I can’t and I need a full lift. In response, he shook his head and rolled his eyes at me.
The other special assistance agent who is stood behind me is patient and understanding. He is focused on making sure my head is supported on the headrest (aisle chairs have headrests at Edinburgh Airport), made sure the belts across my body were secure and the armrests were down.
While the other agent was too distracted talking into his radio about me “wanting” my wheelchair brought up to the plane. He made it seem like I was deliberately being ‘awkward’, when in fact I wasn’t asking for anything unreasonable.
Since he was in front of me, I asked if there was a footplate, but he said there wasn’t even though there was. Instead, Allan helped get my feet and legs secure. He continued speaking on the radio about me not being able to use a manual chair.
Hearing this over and over again was draining. Surely they only need to be told this once. I’m not going to decide I can suddenly walk after telling them I can’t. It was completely unnecessary and quite frankly made me feel like crap.
As I looked up at him he once again shook his head and rolled his eyes at me. At this point, I was becoming more frustrated by the whole thing. I was trying to concentrate on making sure I’m secure in the aisle chair while having to listen to him speak about me to his colleagues as though I’m some inconvenience to him.
The head shake and eye roll was the final straw. I told him I didn’t appreciate his attitude, that it wasn’t my fault they weren’t prepared for me to arrive and didn’t have my wheelchair ready to be brought up to the plane. It’s my right to have it brought up to the plane door.
They knew I was arriving and what assistance I needed. It was obvious he wanted an easy shift and I was clearly being too awkward or needed “too much assistance” for his liking.
I expected to see my wheelchair once they wheeled me off the plane, but it’s wasn’t there. We waited there for fifteen minutes or so for them to bring my wheelchair up to me. I was already feeling pain the longer we waited.
Then they decided it was best if we moved away from the plane door. We go all the way up the jet bridge and up a small platform lift. As we exit the lift we are met by a queue of people waiting to board their flight. They are all looking at me sat there strapped into the aisle chair. This isn’t a dignified way of treating disabled passengers.
I was sat in the aisle chair for around 40 minutes. Unacceptable.
I hope by sharing my experience it can help raise awareness and lead to some sort of positive change. What I don’t want to do is discourage other disabled people who are already concerned when travelling by plane. My goal with my blog is always to encourage others to travel, explore the world and make new discoveries. And I still
stand sit by that.
Again, I want to emphasise that airlines and airports must do better to improve the experience and treatment of disabled passengers. I also want to emphasise that they are not all bad. I’ve had some lovely people assist me in airports who have been incredibly helpful and understanding. But overall, more disability awareness and training are required.
What has your experience of airport special assistance been like?