EHRC Criticises Airlines Over Payouts For Damaged Wheelchairs
Britain’s equality watchdog has criticised British airlines and British Airways (BA) in particular – for their treatment of disabled customers as legal action is taken by an actor over alleged damage to her wheelchair.
Chris Holmes, the disability commissioner on the Equality and Human Rights Commission and a highly successful Paralympic athlete, said carriers should cover the full cost of damage they cause to wheelchairs and mobility devices.
Lord Holmes, who represented Great Britain for 17 years at swimming and won nine gold medals, specifically mentioned the case of disabled actor Athena Stevens. Stevens is taking legal action against BA and London City airport over damage she says happened when she was trying to make a working trip to Glasgow in October last year.
She has previously said that the £25,000 chair – which she alleges was damaged beyond repair – was not insured because no company was willing to cover it.
It is understood neither the airline nor the airport have admitted liability for the damage. BA said it was seeking a suitable resolution with Stevens and told the Guardian it took the needs of those with reduced mobility extremely seriously, and exceeded international rules over compensation where it was responsible for damage.
Holmes questioned whether BA, official airline of both Team GB for the Olympics and the national Paralympic team in Rio de Janeiro this summer, would treat athletes in the same way as they did other disabled customers.
Holmes said: “Disabled people are often deterred from flying for fear of loss, damage or destruction of their mobility equipment. Athena’s story is a case in point.
“She has been left without a replacement chair for eight months. We’re not talking about a suitcase or a set of golf clubs – this is a person’s mobility and independence.
“Considering that BA is a main sponsor of Team GB, I think it’s fair to ask whether this practice would equally apply to competing athletes, and if so, whether the Paralympic team been made aware that British Airways will not cover the full cost if their equipment is damaged.”
Holmes said air carriers could “hide behind” the Montreal convention, a series of rules for international air carriers, to avoid paying fully for damaged equipment vital for those with disabilities. The convention calculates compensation for damaged equipment by weight rather than value.
Holmes said: “This unfair policy is trapping disabled people in a cycle of disadvantage, and British air carriers have the moral responsibility to stop applying it to disabled customers’ mobility equipment, as it’s clearly unfit for purpose.”
The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority warns people with disabilities that amounts paid for damaged equipment “may be limited to around £1,300”.
The EHRC , which has its own guide for disabled passengers, says airlines such as Lufthansa and Air Canada make clear they go beyond the provisions of the Montreal convention, while the European commission encourages carriers to go beyond the liability limits.
In the US, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) states that for domestic flights the “criterion for calculating the compensation for a lost, damaged or destroyed wheelchair or other assistive device shall be the original purchase price of the device”.
British Airways said in a statement: “More than 426,000 people with reduced mobility travelled with us last year and we take their needs extremely seriously.
“We always take great care when transporting wheelchairs. However, there are rare occasions when damage occurs,” the airline said.
“In those circumstances when we are responsible, we pay compensation to the value of the damage caused over and above the limits of the Montreal agreement.
“We are speaking with Ms Stevens and her legal representatives to reach a suitable resolution.”
London City airport said: “We have been in communication with Ms Stevens from the outset and the airport has made every effort to assist her in resolving this situation. We are awaiting a response. Because this is a legal matter we are unable to provide further comment.”
The British Paralympic Association said: “We’re pleased that BA have made the commitment to ParalympicsGB and are confident they are making great plans to ensure our Paralympic athletes are given a world class service.”