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How Airlines Still Discriminate Against Disabled Travellers

April 24, 2017

Jenny Gumbrell has been housebound and unable to work since returning from a trip to New Zealand in mid-February. When her flight arrived at Gatwick she discovered that her portable mobility scooter was in pieces, having been apparently dropped from a height. It was declared beyond economic repair and, since then, the multiple sclerosis sufferer from Winchester has fought in vain to persuade Emirates Airlines to pay for a replacement.

“I can’t leave the house unless I pay for a taxi,” says Gumbrell, who had to be pushed by airport staff in a borrowed wheelchair to her taxi. “The scooter gives me a sense of independence, despite the difficulties caused by my condition.”

Gumbrell’s plight highlights the inadequacy of aviation law when it concerns travellers with disabilities. Airlines are only obliged to pay passengers a maximum of around £1,200 when their luggage is lost or damaged. The threshold was set in 1999 by the Montreal Convention which harmonises compensation rules for international flights.

Campaigners claim that it discriminates against some passengers because it fails to distinguish between the loss of a suitcase of clothes and a wheelchair that is someone’s lifeline.

In Gumbrell’s case, the £1,094 eventually offered by Emirates covered less than half the £2,200 cost of a new scooter and it included £105 she was obliged to pay to courier the damaged vehicle to the manufacturer when Emirates insisted it be professionally assessed. Moreover, it required four weeks of chasing before the airline made the offer.

Emirates finally agreed to fund the full cost of a new scooter after Gumbrell contacted The Observer. “We apologise for any inconvenience caused as a result of this,” says a spokesperson.

“The comfort and wellbeing of all of our customers is of paramount importance, in particular customers with reduced mobility.”

Actor and entrepreneur Athena Stevens waited a year for compensation after her £25,000 motorised wheelchair was irreparably damaged during a British Airways flight from London City airport to Glasgow in 2015. The airline only paid up last November, six months after she began legal proceedings.

She estimates the saga cost her £70,000 in taxi fares, wheelchair hire, extra carers and business lost through her immobility, but the payout only covered the cost of the chair and legal expenses.

“It completely closed my life down,” says 32-year-old Stevens who has cerebral palsy. BA told The Guardian that over the 12 months it had continued to seek a solution with Stevens and her lawyers “more than 426,000 people with reduced mobility travelled with us and we take their needs extremely seriously”.

In 2006 the European Commission introduced regulations which require airports to provide temporary alternatives if mobility aids are lost or damaged.

However, passengers still complain of discrimination. Daniel Scott (not his real name) says he was left to fend for himself after he found the brakes of his wheelchair damaged following a Ryanair flight from Slovakia to London Stansted.

“No one was in the slightest bit bothered with just how serious this was, and all I was given was a damage form to fill out at lost luggage,” says the 47-year-old who is unable to walk after a spinal cord injury. He was housebound for a week while he awaited spare parts to arrive from the manufacturer. He says the repair cost him £200, but the chair, badly twisted in transit, would no longer run reliably and he was obliged to replace it at a cost of £4,800 six months later.

An eight-month battle won him £100 in “goodwill” from Stansted. “I’ve lost my trust in flying,” he says. “As a disabled traveller you’re really made to feel you’re an inconvenience.”

Ryanair says that while it “regrets any inconvenience, wheelchair services at London Stansted in 2012 were operated by ISS on behalf of the airport authority – at great expense to the airlines – and London Stansted was responsible for this service and any problems with it.”

Campaigner Roberto Castiglioni set up the advice website Reduced Mobility Rights after attempting to fly with his severely disabled son. “Access to air travel is not something people with special needs can take for granted because of the obstacles they meet getting onto a plane,” he says.

He advises travellers with mobility equipment worth over £1,200 to make a “special declaration of interest” when they book their flight. This is akin to an insurance policy covering the transport of goods worth more than the cap set by the Montreal Convention. It is illegal for airlines to deny this, but most airlines charge a fee, and it is only available on request and on a case-by-case basis.

In the US, anti-discrimination laws oblige airlines to pay the full cost of mobility equipment damaged on domestic flights. The European Commission is considering introducing similar rules, but currently it merely “encourages” airlines to voluntarily pay more than they are legally obliged to. Only two airlines, Lufthansa and Air Canada, have, so far, pledged to do so.

 

Paralympian Chris Holmes, former disability commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, urges UK airlines to follow suit. “This unfair policy is trapping disabled people in a cycle of disadvantage,” he says. “British air carriers have the moral responsibility to stop applying it to mobility equipment, as it’s clearly unfit for purpose.”

“The likelihood of a mobility aid being damaged is very low,” says the UK aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority. “However, the CAA recognises that the compensation available under the Montreal Convention will not always be enough to cover the cost of repair or replacement of mobility aids entirely.

“Given this, we are gathering information on the frequency with which mobility aids are damaged and the contingencies airlines and airports have to look after disabled passengers when incidents occur. We then intend to examine the potential options available to wheelchair users to receive better protection.”

It is not just the wheelchair that is damaged when mishandled in transit. Gumbrell had to be signed off work with stress as she struggled to adapt to life without her lifeline.

However, the Montreal Convention makes no provision for psychological damage in its compensation requirements – only for physical harm.

This is a “grave injustice”, according to a supreme court judge who was prevented from awarding a person with cerebral palsy compensation for degrading treatment on board a Thomas Cook flight. The passenger had asked to be seated beside his wife so she could attend to his special needs. But they were allocated seats a row apart so that she had to crouch in the aisle to deal with his catheter and help with food. The supreme court ruled that there had been a breach of EC disability regulations but the passenger could not be compensated for his humiliation because of the constraints of the Montreal Convention.

The more airlines try to cut corners the more likely they are to regard passengers with a disability as a costly burden, and campaigners say that attitudes, as well as laws, need to change.

WHAT THE RULES SAY

Under EU law airports and airlines are jointly responsible for assisting disabled passengers to and from the aircraft and during a flight, provided they give 48 hours’ notice of their requirements. This includes providing an alternative wheelchair if the passenger’s chair is lost or damaged in transit.

Bizarrely, although airlines have to pay airports for that assistance, they are legally obliged to step in if the airport fails to provide the service. EC Regulation EC1107/2006, which enshrines the rights of disabled travellers, applies to all EU flights and aircraft.

In 2014 the Civil Aviation (Access to Air Travel for Disabled Persons and Persons with Reduced Mobility) Regulations 2014 gave the UK regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, legal powers to ensure airlines or airports comply with European regulations. However, disabled passengers still complain of discrimination.

In October a terminally ill woman was left stranded in the hydraulic lift that was to winch her onto a Ryanair flight which took off without her, and in 2011 a person with multiple sclerosis successfully sued the same airline after the lift failed to arrive and she had to be hauled up the aircraft steps over her husband’s shoulder.

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