I recently travelled to London City Airport from Edinburgh Airport with British Airways. I knew at the time of booking my flights that I would be using a stairclimber to board and disembark the plane at London City Airport (LCY). It was no surprise to me. The website clearly stated it would be a stairclimber. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t dreading it. Having never been to LCY before I wanted to hear feedback from other disabled people who had any experience of the special assistance and stairclimber. I asked some of my disabled friends if they had ever been to this London airport. Unfortunately, they hadn’t so I was a little unsure what to expect from London City Airport special assistance.
My dislike of using the stairclimber isn’t the main reason for this post. In fact, it was the poor treatment from the staff, lack of communication and lack of training that upset me the most. Here is my detailed experience of London City Airport special assistance. Let me explain.
Arriving at London City Airport
It began as soon as we arrived in London City Airport and the special assistance came onboard. I was sitting in the third row from the back of the plane as the cabin crew in Edinburgh advised special assistance would be taking me off the plane via the back. She kindly offered to move our seats from row eight to the back to make it easier for me. That was great and we happily switched.
Special assistance came on board to begin the transfer. They asked if I could self-transfer or walk. We explained that I couldn’t do either and needed a full lift. We also explained that I was using my easyTravelseat so all they had to do was hold onto the handles to lift me across into the stairclimber, which they positioned in the aisle.
The stairclimber is similar to the aisle chair. It’s narrow and not the most comfortable but it is used for disabled passengers who are immobile and need help getting from their own wheelchair to a seat on the airplane.
The first signs things weren’t going to go smoothly was the lack of communication from one of the staff. I felt she was hoping for a simple transfer from someone who didn’t need hands-on assistance as I did. She seemed somewhat annoyed and uninterested in what I was saying to her.
Like most disabled people who need assistance from others to physically transfer them, it’s incredibly important we feel comfortable and safe before any lifting or moving takes place. I don’t want to be injured and I want them to fully understand my limitations.
We always clearly explain this to all special assistance staff. Whether it’s a pain in the butt to listen to or not. I’m doing it for them too. I don’t want them to hurt themselves in the process of dropping me. Communication really is key!
So the transfer began but as I suspected she hadn’t listened to me. I began to feel unbalanced and almost fell over to the side. She put the belts across me but didn’t bother to tighten them. Again I could fall over so I asked again for them to be tightened and for my legs to be held in place too.
The whole time, she doesn’t utter one word to me. It made me feel uncomfortable and a burden to her.
Before we began to disembark, I asked if the stairclimber had a headrest. Due to weak neck control, I need to have neck support especially when the stairclimber tilts back to go down the aircraft steps. Without support, my head would flip back and I wouldn’t be able to lift it back up.
The stairclimber didn’t have a headrest. Typical. I don’t understand why it wouldn’t have a headrest. We began rolling up my scarf to place behind my head. Then the cabin crew offered me some pillows which worked well to keep my head upright. We shouldn’t have had to do this. The stairclimber should have had a headrest.
We began the descent down the aircraft steps and surprisingly it was less bumpy than I expected. At the bottom of the steps was a manual wheelchair belonging to the airport as well as my own powered wheelchair.
The special assistance staff were planning on transferring me from the stairclimber into the manual wheelchair and then into my powered wheelchair. It didn’t make sense. So we let them know I wanted to go straight into my own wheelchair.
The cabin crew came downstairs to make sure I was okay, which I thought was really nice. She began speaking to the special assistance staff and asked them why they weren’t using the ambulift.
The ambulift?! What ambulift?
I was told there wasn’t an ambulift and the airport website only mentions the stairclimber. The staff respond by saying the batteries need to be charged as it was just in use for someone else.
Really? I’ve never been to an airport and not been able to use the ambulift because it’s charging.
After a bit of back and forth conversation, we explain how much easier the ambulift is and so on. I’m told it will be available to use when I return to the airport in a few days for my flight back to Edinburgh.
As they guide us along off the tarmac and into the airport, we walk past the ambulift parked up against the wall.
We couldn’t help but doubt what they were telling us. Would we actually board the plane via the ambulift in a few days time? It was highly doubtful, but we kept our fingers crossed.
Stairclimber In Action At London City Airport
Here is a short video we captured using the stairclimber to disembark the plane at London City Airport with special assistance.
Departing London City Airport
We arrived at London City Airport in good time for our flight home to Edinburgh. Check-in was open so we approached the desk to begin getting everything sorted.
Getting through security was no problem and before we know it we are waiting in departures. It just so happened there were free seats at the special assistance area so we waited there.
As we were waiting, one of the special assistance staff approached us and asked: “what flight are you on?”. We still had a while until boarding so he left. Another one came along, told us when they were expecting to board so to wait and he would come back for us in a little while.
Before boarding, I always like to go to the toilet. So we headed off to look for the accessible toilet only to find it located within a restaurant called Pilots. The restaurant was in the middle of the open departures lounge so it wasn’t closed off.
We made our way through as the accessible toilet is only two feet away, but the waitress quickly steps in front of us and asks where we are going in a very rude manner.
The space between the wall and dining customers is very tight. We make it through and into the toilet. As we open the door to leave the toilet it bangs against a woman sitting at a table, which she wasn’t very happy about. I apologise even though it was no fault of my own. It was the restaurant who chose to place tables so close to an accessible toilet door. Barely enough room to open the door properly.
We make our way back to the special assistance waiting area and immediately someone appears. She asks what flight we are on and when we tell her she replies “Right, let’s go” and immediately walks away before we even get a chance to get our stuff ready.
She led us through the guts of the airport. By this, I mean staff and storage areas, connecting corridors after corridors, airport vehicle parks etc. The entire time not communicating or reassuring us at any point along the way. I can’t help but find this incredibly unacceptable. This is not good customer service in any way shape or form.
For a customer-focused role like this which involves working with many different types of disability, you would expect someone to be good at communicating, friendly and helpful. Some disabled passengers may be very anxious about flying, this may be their first time flying with their disability so it’s all new and daunting. This should not be the service they receive.
We stop in an empty corridor and there is absolutely no one around. She tells us to wait here. As we were told a few days before that we would be using the ambulift this time, we ask this lady if the ambulift will be coming to collect us. She quickly responds “no, it’s not available.”
We ask why and she responds by asking if I can walk at all. I tell her no and that I would rather use the ambulift, but she replies that “the stairclimber is better” for people who can’t walk. Better for who? The staff? Because it’s not better for me and so many other wheelchair users and disabled passengers unable to climb the aircraft stairs.
I’m then told the ambulift is waiting on a part and can’t be used. We found this strange because every time we ask about the ambulift we’re told a different reason for it not being in use. The staff seem very unreliable in what they are telling us. It seems like they don’t want to use the stairclimber or are reluctant to give an honest reason.
So we ask if she can check with someone else, which she does, but then comes back and tells us the ambulift is missing a plate which connects it to the plane. The whole time her attitude is off and doesn’t show any understanding of the situation.
We are then left waiting in an empty corridor which sits airside while she walks outside to speak to someone. There are no seats and it is freezing cold.
After a while, she reappears and tells us to follow her outside and into a small room. One of her colleagues is waiting there with the stairclimber. She doesn’t acknowledge us. The space is barely big enough for us to fit inside.
Immediately I begin to analyse how I’m going to be transferred from my wheelchair into the stairclimber because there is no space to move. I ask if this is where we will be doing the transfer and she says “no, out there” in a very dismissive tone.
I ask who I can speak to about the ambulift and my concerns about the whole process and the woman says it’s herself as she is the supervisor. As I begin to explain what has happened, she cuts me off and say’s we need to go now.
They begin taking us out onto the tarmac to board the plane. It’s almost 8pm, it’s pitch dark, freezing cold and extremely noisy. There were two special assistance staff members and two airside crew.
None of them seemed to know what they were doing next. They began to line the stairclimber up at the bottom of the aircrafts stairs with absolutely no thought or consideration as to how I was getting from my wheelchair into the stairclimber. There was no space for my wheelchair to sit in order to do a safe lateral transfer. Something that I would expect the staff to be shown during basic training.
I had to explain to them to bring the stairclimber to me so we could do the transfer. I also explained that it would be easier to put the stairclimber on my left side so my wheelchair controller wouldn’t get in the way during the lift. They continued to ignore me and proceeded to set the stairclimber up on my right side. I persisted to instruct them and they eventually listened and moved it to the other side.
Then when I didn’t think it could get any worse, it did. The two female special assistance agents looked blankly at me when we advised them on how to lift me across. I didn’t feel comfortable or confident in their ability to safely and efficiently lift whatsoever. There was no way I was going to trust them to do it.
Instead, I asked one of the airside crew agents who was standing watching to help. He was tall and strong so I was confident that him and Allan would be able to transfer without any problems. Immediately he helped and was fantastic. He could tell I was upset with the treatment from the other two agents and that it wasn’t going smoothly.
Once safely transferred into the stairclimber he made sure I was comfortable. The two special assistance agents took over again and began to operate the stairclimber.
When I was inside the cabin, the man who helped Allan intervened and offered to help lift me from the stairclimber into my aircraft seat with Allan again. I’ve never been so pleased to have someone help like I was with him. He apologised for his colleagues and wished us a safe flight home.
Before the two special assistance agents left I asked them for the contact details of the person in charge as I wanted to make a complaint. They fobbed me off with “just email the general airport email address on the website and it will be passed to us”.
What was most frustrating was the fact she was a supervisor. That was the most words she had said to us the entire time.
I found the whole process very stressful. The staff were unorganised and unprofessional. They weren’t helpful, understanding and friendly like I’d expect from someone in a special assistance role. Not once did they explain what the process was, where we were going, what was happening next, asked how I felt, how I needed to be transferred. Zero communication and zero understanding.
I also don’t think it’s a good idea to transfer a disabled passenger from wheelchair to stairclimber at the bottom of the aircraft stairs completely exposed to the elements and high noise levels. Especially without ear protection. The staff wear ear protection. What about us? I’m just glad it wasn’t raining as the freezing temperatures were bad enough.
As someone who is fairly used to travelling by plane and the process of getting on and off a plane, I felt uncomfortable and very frustrated by the situation. I hate to think how first-time disabled travellers or people who don’t travel often would feel after this experience. It could potentially discourage them from travelling and that is not acceptable at all.
The pilot and cabin crew were appalled by the treatment and lack of assistance/service. They were both writing reports about it. The pilot spoke to my mum onboard as he was looking down watching what was going on. He was so angry that he put his hi-vis vest on to come down the stairs to help. This is certainly not what a pilot’s job is, but he clearly observed incompetent staff.
London City Airport you must do better.
I have written a complaint to London City Airport special assistance. I will update as and when I receive a response.