You might think it is a rather odd title to a serious article, but the title is also a genuine question. Just how many disabled people does it take to fill a plane? Some airlines have quotas in place in order to limit the number of disabled passengers they carry, citing ‘safety concerns’ in the event of an incident where there has to be an evacuation. But is it discrimination or sensible to have a quota in place?
British Airways state that “There is no limit to the number of disabled passengers on our aircraft. However, in order to meet safety requirements a passenger may need to be accompanied by another person who can provide assistance.”
Flybe “limits the number of PRM (people with reduced mobility) passengers to one per able bodied passenger carried. Therefore, and as an example, if a flight is fully booked the Bombardier Q400 aircraft is capable of accepting up to 39 PRMs, the Embraer 175 up to 44 PRMs and the Embraer 195 up to 59 PRM passengers.
As a scheduled airline, flights may operate at less than full capacity and therefore staff accepting a PRM booking would be required to check the number of PRM passengers currently booked on that flight vs the number of passengers whom have not pre-booked any form of assistance – and are therefore considered able bodied.”
Virgin Atlantic has no quota on the number of disabled passengers it can carry per flight.
BMI’s policy is “In circumstances in which the number of Special Category Passengers (SCP) forms a significant proportion of the total number of passengers carried on board, the number of SCPs must not exceed the number of able-bodied Persons (ABPs) capable of assisting with an emergency evacuation.”
The policy of Thomson airways is to follow “the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) mandate which states that airlines must not carry more SCP than able bodied passengers. We also adhere to regulation EU1107/2005 which only permits the refusal of persons with reduced mobility (PRM) on safety grounds.
However, due to safe loading limitations we are limited on the number of electric mobility aids we can carry on any one aircraft, where the number we can accept will depend upon when the booking is made and the aircraft type.”
When writing this article, we contacted Ryanair for clarification on what their policy is on disabled passengers. Initially Ryanair’s special assistance unit said: “There’s no limit on our [Ryanair’s] aircraft”, however the deputy head of customer services, Fiona Kearns clarified Ryanair’s position, stating:
“The policy would be that we can allow up to 50% of a load factor. The balance would be 50/50 (passengers with reduced mobility) PRM Vs able bodied passengers (ABP). That is for our safety limit.”
When asked what the airline would do if there were more disabled passengers booked onto a flight than abled bodied passengers, Ms Kearns said:
“It would be quite an unusual circumstance, rather than saying no straight away, we would investigate. Everything we do with PRMs we look at on a case by case basis and if there’s anything we can do to assist them then we’ll do that. We would not outright say no, but for safety reasons we are advised by our safety team to stick to the quota. We make efforts to accommodate everybody as best as we can.”
Despite legislation being in place for over a decade, disabled airline passengers are continuing to be left humiliated and embarrassed as a result of airlines failing to treat them properly, a report suggests.
The report by the Trailblazers group of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, found that 90% of disabled people found toilets on aircraft inaccessible and too small, and 60% had experienced damage to their wheelchair.
The report goes on to reveal that due to the lack of access to toilets on planes, disabled people have been forced to urinate into bottles, and even avoid drinking before boarding a flight, in order to prevent themselves from needing to use the bathroom.
There are various pieces of legislation that have been introduced in order to try and tackle disability discrimination. The United Nations published the Convention on disability rights which was signed by 155 countries, and ratified by 126 countries including the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China. The United States failed to ratify the motion because the majority of Republicans voted against it.
Various British governments have introduced legislation, the main legislation being the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and latterly the Equality Act 2010.
The particular focus with this article is on how disabled people are treated when they travel by aircraft. The Department for Transport in 2008 under the then Secretary of State, Ruth Kelly published a report which looked into disabled passengers and aviation. The report was titled ‘Access to Air Travel for Disabled Persons and Persons with Reduced Mobility – Code of Practice’. But since the publication of the code of practice, many disabled passengers have continued to be discriminated against.
The European Commission states quite clearly on their website that disabled passengers are protected from being discriminated against “during reservation and boarding. They are also entitled to receive assistance at airports (on departure, on arrival and in transit) and on board airplanes.”
It was made illegal in 2007 for an airline to refuse to allow a disabled person on board, and up until 2008, airlines could charge disabled people for taking their wheelchair on board. However the EU legislated to prevent this, with the former European Commissioner for Transport, Antonio Tajani saying. “I have offered my services to monitor the implementation of this legislation very closely indeed. I am prepared to impose any necessary measure to ensure that that is the case.”
EU Regulation 965/2012 came into force in October 2012 and will be implemented fully by 2014. The regulation could force airlines within the EU to drop the quota which they have adopted over recent years. The key change in the new regulation is, that the National Civil Aviation Authority will have to approve, not just acknowledge, airlines certification materials.
Help and Assistance
Last year the BBC’s Security Correspondent, Frank Gardner who regularly appears on-screen either in his wheelchair or with a zimmer frame, was denied help and assistance by Kenya Airlines who refused to allow Mr Gardner to board the flight due to the size of his zimmer. They did not have an aisle chair on board which would have meant he could have been assisted getting onto the plane. Kenyan Airlines informed him that if he wanted to use the toilet he would have to get other passengers to help him. They said: “We’re not letting you on because your Zimmer frame is too wide. You won’t be able to get to your seat.”
He was only allowed onto the plane when his friends complained and he showed them his press card. Mr Gardner was flying from London Heathrow to Nairobi in February 2012.
Whether it is by not being able to book seats near the toilet on the plane, being refused boarding due to having a disability, or simply feeling humiliated because staff at an airline or airport refuse the offer to help. These cases are not rare – they are more common than people think.
In 2011 a story appeared in the press about a disabled boy and his mother who were told by easyJet that they were not able to take the boy’s wheelchair on board because it weighed too much. The chair weighed no more than 200lbs and other airlines were able to accommodate the family.
EasyJet were fined £60,000 in 2012 by the French courts for denying boarding to disabled passengers. One example of easyJet denying boarding was when Dr Martin Sabry, who is paralysed from the chest down was denied boarding because ‘he could not walk to the emergency exit
Bott and Co recently dealt with a case whereby a family were flying from London to Orlando, US. The flight was delayed for over six hours, but the most shocking part of their trip was when the family reached the boarding gate. The Wells family were assured when they booked their flights that there would be an aisle-chair available for Mrs Wells – who suffers from MS. The family were assured once again when they were checking in on the day that an aisle-chair was ready for Mrs Wells. However, when the family reached the boarding gates they were informed by British Airways staff that no aisle-chair was available to assist Mrs Wells from her wheelchair onto the aircraft.
Her son had to lift his mother over his shoulder to take her onto the plane, something the family say left them feeling “utterly degraded and upset.” It was when the plane was in the air that BA staff told them that there was in-fact a chair on board.
When the Wells family were returning from America to the UK, airline staff actually misplaced Mrs Wells’ wheelchair – something which left the Captain personally going to look for it.
So why are airlines still treating disabled passengers in this way? The legislation is in place to prevent this and it seems to be that there is a greater need for better enforcing the legislation.
The Senior Partner of Bott and Company, David Bott, who also sits on the spinal injuries association Cornflower Ball committee believes: “It should not come as news to any organisation that disabled people have rights. The legislation has been in force since the mid-90s and updated regularly over the years. Airlines are not exempt from this legislation and should take the time and use their energy to assist disabled travellers, rather than ignore their rights and restrict their abilities to travel.”
Jan Podsiadly from the Queen Elizabeth’s Foundation for Disabled People comments:
“The biggest difficulty is that airlines have little corporate understanding of disability and the medical conditions related to specific disabilities. Disability training for staff is important but disability must first be addressed in policy, processes and procedures. Appropriate facilities must be available in-flight and at terminals with clear pre-flight information on availability and location. Airlines must develop the skills to address disabled people’s needs.”