It is a photo that should shame travel industry bosses. A disabled woman left abandoned in an empty plane cabin. The bleak image, which surfaced this month on Twitter, has since been shared thousands of times and published by most national news websites.
I know the woman in the picture well: Victoria Brignell, a well-respected producer at BBC Radio 4 and friend of mine.
Victoria, who is paralysed from the neck down and a wheelchair user, had arrived back at Gatwick on a British Airways flight after a holiday in Malta.
The specialist staff booked to lift her safely from the plane seat and carry her to her wheelchair at the door failed to appear. The result was an hour and a half spent stuck in her seat.
Victoria Brignell, who is paralysed from the neck down and a wheelchair user, was stuck in her seat for an hour and a half before she was helped off the BA jet at Gatwick
Victoria, 45, told me: ‘The cabin crew told me my wheelchair was ready at the door of the plane, but there was no one to help me into it.’
Eventually the crew took it upon themselves to move her – something that, strictly speaking, they are not trained to do or insured for.
It was a depressing experience for Victoria, but also a familiar one.
She added: ‘Flying is often unpleasant, if you’re a wheelchair user. There are no accessible toilets on most planes. It means I only travel short-haul so I don’t have to go to the loo. Friends have had wheelchairs go missing for weeks or get damaged in the hold, leaving them totally stranded at the other end.
‘Disabled people are often an after-thought when it comes to travel.’
A recent survey found that two-thirds of the seven million Britons with mobility problems avoid flying because it is so difficult.
Tanni Grey-Thompson (left, in 2019; and right, in 2007), a frequent traveller, has her own collection of horror stories. ‘There was the time I had to crawl from my seat and out of the plane at Berlin’s Brandenburg airport because there were no staff or what’s known as an aisle chair – a buggy-like chair that is narrow enough to get around the plane – to help transport me,’ she says
As a wheelchair user and a frequent traveller, of course I have my own collection of horror stories.
There was the time I had to crawl from my seat and out of the plane at Berlin’s Brandenburg airport because there were no staff or what’s known as an aisle chair – a buggy-like chair that is narrow enough to get around the plane – to help transport me.
Or the time my wheelchair got lost in transit for three months, or when I travelled with my daughter and staff told me I wasn’t a responsible adult, so couldn’t look after her.
I’ve even had to crawl to the toilet on a plane, when staff have told me they didn’t want to get the aisle chair – which would transport me to the loo – out of storage.
Last year, a number of reporters contacted me to ask what I thought about the news of plans to send the first disabled person into space. They clearly wanted me to express excitement, but I recall thinking: I just want to be able to get on a flight to Spain like everyone else.
Over the years, the Government has made several pledges to put accessibility at the forefront of the travel agenda – but nothing seems to change. I am exhausted by it. Last night, the Minister For Disabled People, Chloe Smith, told The Mail on Sunday that the recent incidences I’ve described, ‘should not be allowed to happen again.’ But I want action.
So, today, I’m joining forces with The Mail on Sunday to make five key demands of the travel industry.
We are calling for:
1 Fines for airports and rail operators that keep disabled passengers waiting longer than 20 minutes on planes, and ten minutes on trains, for special assistance.
2 All wheelchair users can use their own chair all the way to plane door – and it will be waiting for them when they arrive at their destination.
3 Storage space for at least one collapsible wheelchair in the cabin of every aircraft, so they don’t have to go in the hold.
4 An accessible toilet on every aircraft.
5 A disability champion on board every flight, who is fully trained in the spectrum of accessibility needs and able to assist passengers to move.
We want the chief executives of the three major airlines in the UK, British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair – Sean Doyle, Johan Lundgren and Michael O’Leary respectively – to lead the way with new accessibility drives at their companies.
One of the UK’s leading disability charities, Scope, is also supporting The Mail on Sunday’s campaign, and last night it wrote to MPs, including Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Disability Minister Chloe Smith, to demand a crackdown on transport bosses who fail their disabled passengers.
‘Disabled people have been getting stuck on planes and trains for years,’ says James Taylor, director of strategy at Scope. ‘The Government has set accessibility targets and held consultations, but the industry has repeatedly failed to meet the goals set. The only way to force firms to take it seriously is to make them pay out – either by offering compensation to passengers or with heavy fines.’
Frustratingly, the challenges could be easily resolved with some simple tweaks to the system.
Figures from 2019 showed that 700 disabled people missed flights between 2015 and 2018 because special assistance either failed to show up in time or didn’t have the right equipment .
Some airports insist passengers’ personal wheelchairs go into the aircraft’s hold. They would like passengers to check their wheelchairs in along with their bags and then use a standard wheelchair they provide to move about the airport – but these are ill-fitting, uncomfortable and, crucially, impossible for the user to move themselves. It means we are forced to rely on a member of staff to push us around, which is degrading.
It’s a fact
Disabled people make a third fewer trips outside their home than non-disabled people, Government figures show.
Wheelchairs get lost or damaged during transit because some staff don’t always understand how important the equipment is, or the cost of it. And even if it is brought to the gate promptly after landing, there may not be enough trained staff to help get you into it.
According to UK aviation regulations, most aircraft are supposed to also provide an aisle chair to allow disabled people to move around cabins, but not all do.
‘Cabin crew staff can’t lift passengers because they are not insured to,’ says Leo Visconti from Queen Elizabeth’s Foundation For Disabled People, who is drafting accessibility guidance for cabin crews. ‘If someone were to get injured, for instance, the airline would be liable. It means people are forced to wait for special assistance staff at the airport, who can take a while to reach the plane – if they turn up at all.’
The main UK airports outsource special assistance to a few private companies. This is part of the problem. A request for assistance has to be made 48 hours before flying. It’s logged with the airline, then passed to the airport and then outsourced to the special assistance company. The more layers of communication there are, the greater the chance that the request won’t reach the people it needs to. Staffing shortages only add to this problem.
Geraldine Lundy, a consultant in accessible air travel and former executive at Virgin Atlantic, says cost-cutting means that care is being compromised.
‘Although the airports negotiate the contracts with the special assistance companies, the airlines, which fly in and out of that airport, pay for it,’ she says. ‘And airlines are often keen to drive down costs, and ask to pay less for the service, which compromises quality.’
In 2018, the Government set out proposals to improve air travel, including for disabled people. But the project was put on hold during the pandemic.
The five simple changes we ask for can easily be put into practice and would make a world of difference to disabled Britons.
None is expensive or time-consuming to implement. Some have been trialled before or are standard already in other countries. In America, for instance, it has been a legal requirement since 2009 for new planes to have adequate space for at least one collapsible wheelchair in the cabin. Aircraft flying in the US must also have an accessible toilet.
There is little reason why aircraft flying between the UK and Europe can’t do the same. The cupboard space already exists at the front of most standard short-haul planes. It’s just normally used for storing the cabin crew’s belongings, and the odd business class passenger’s coat.
Many disabled people would like to travel in their own wheelchairs for the whole journey. A high-tech chair allowing passengers to do this – featuring sophisticated interlocking grips to stop it sliding around – has been designed and tested in America, and a UK version is in the offing.
Our second proposal – to fine airlines for poor service – is also something that happens in America. There, airlines have been charged up to £1 million for failing in their duties. If they repeatedly offend, the authorities can stop companies flying altogether.
And the third suggestion – one staff member with special assistance training on every flight – has also proven successful in the past.
‘In 2006, new EU legislation made all airports responsible for organising special assistance,’ says Geraldine. ‘But prior to that, some airlines managed it.
‘At Virgin, we had a group of specially trained staff called Care Bears who were part of cabin crew and well versed in the needs of people with a broad range of disabilities. Care Bears could help assist people physically, but there was also the same level of customer service you get with cabin crew.
‘It also meant fewer passengers had to wait for special assistance staff to get on and off the plane.’
British Airways assured us all their cabin crew receive some accessibility training, and a nominated member of the team is assigned to passengers who need ‘additional requirements’.
And then there’s accessible toilets. Currently, there is no UK legislation to ensure there is a appropriate toilet for everyone on planes. As Victoria said, it means flying long distance is out of the question for most disabled people. In the US, it is mandatory for new aircraft.
And what about the railways?
The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act promised that, by January 2020, the majority of railway stations would improve access for disabled people – with providers taking reasonable steps to offer step-free access to platforms, ramps on trains and special assistance for passengers who need it.
More than two years after the deadline, only half of stations are close to achieving this. Many trains have just two designated wheelchair spaces.
The Office of Rail and Road, the Government body that regulates all train operators and stations, states that when the train reaches its final destination, ‘disabled passengers will be assisted off within five minutes of arrival’. But this doesn’t always happen.
Recently I booked a trip with special assistance from London’s Marylebone to Bicester in Oxfordshire, where I was expected for a meeting the next day.
I was assured that the staff at Marylebone would make contact with Bicester to confirm I had got on the train – to inform special assistance staff.
But they could not get hold of anyone at Bicester. So when I arrived, I was forced to wait for more than an hour for contact to be made.
Despite the Department for Transport’s recent promise to make all railways accessible by 2030, research by the disability charity Leonard Cheshire estimates that, at the current rate of progress, a more realistic deadline is 2070.
But if a disabled person can be sent into space, I am quite sure our travel bosses can ensure that disabled people get on and off trains in a timely manner.
BBC Frank Gardner has been trapped four times
Last month, BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner shared on Twitter the picture of his empty plane cabin, and told his 112,000 followers that he’d been stuck on the runway at Heathrow for half an hour after everyone else had got off.
The journalist, who has been paralysed since 2004 when he was shot six times by Al Qaeda gunmen in Saudi Arabia, explained that there were no staff available to get his wheelchair off the aircraft.
And for Frank, 60, such events are a regular occurrence.
Last month, BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner shared on Twitter the picture, above, of his empty plane cabin, and told his 112,000 followers that he’d been stuck on the runway at Heathrow for half an hour after everyone else had got off
In 2017, he was stranded on an easyJet flight after Gatwick’s special assistance staff failed to show up, and a year later he was left waiting for nearly two hours on a plane at Heathrow when staff lost his wheelchair.
He tweeted: ‘Odd that I can travel round the Middle East and elsewhere without a hitch. Yet time and time again Heathrow Airport loses my wheelchair on arrival. Just when is UK’s premier airport going to stop treating disabled passengers this way?’
Just a few months later, he found himself stuck for half an hour at Heathrow again.
This time, the crew manning the mechanical lift needed to get him from his seat to the door accidentally locked themselves in a lift.
After the latest incident, on a flight from Estonia, he tweeted: ‘It’s happened again. Stuck on an empty plane at Heathrow Airport long after everyone else is off. No staff to get my wheelchair off the plane. I am SO disappointed.’