Airlines Are Failing Passengers Who Require Assistance to Fly

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The arrival and departures board lists numerous flight cancelations at Tampa International Airport before the airport is due to close at 5pm today ahead of Hurricane Ian on September 27, 2022 in Tampa, Florida.

The arrival and departures board lists numerous flight cancelations at Tampa International Airport before the airport is due to close at 5pm today ahead of Hurricane Ian on September 27, 2022 in Tampa, Florida.
Image: BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP (Getty Images)

All passengers flying post-COVID lockdowns have noticed staffing problems at every level slowing down the process, but no passengers are more affected than those in need of assistance to reach their destinations. Flying with different abilities is a dehumanizing, painful and, sometimes, life threatening experience.

Just in time for the holiday travel season, CNN put together a report on the state of flying for Americans who need special assistance at the airport, and boy, is it grim!:

Disabilities affect roughly one in five of the population and there are many passengers who use what’s termed “special assistance” when moving around airports.

That could be someone partially sighted needing guidance to the gate, someone with sensory issues needing help at pinchpoints such as security or during boarding, or a passenger with a bad knee who can walk to the gate, but can’t do steps.

Around 27 million passengers with disabilities flew through US airports in 2019, according to the Department of Transportation (DOT).

And with a system already under stress, the results can be devastating.

[…]

In June, a passenger who’d booked special assistance died at London’s Gatwick Airport when he decided to make his way into the terminal unaided instead of waiting for assistance. A staff member had arrived at the gate to take three passengers to a buggy, and had already taken the first person when the man decided to walk. The airport has launched an investigation into the incident.

The people struggling with the lack of services say the shortage of workers, lack of customization for each unique passenger and a lack of training are the key reasons already poor treatment has gotten worse.

“It’s definitely got worse since the pandemic,” says Roberto Castiglioni, director of Reduced Mobility Rights, which advocates for disabled travelers.

“Staff shortages are not only having an impact on not enough [assistance-dedicated] agent,” he says. “Where airports have seen shortages in security staff, there are very long lines to go through.”

Anyone who can’t stand for, at times, hours — whether elderly, pregnant or sick — has to request assistance, adding extra stress on a short-staffed system.

[…]

For Carrie-Ann Lightley — who’s wanted to fly from her native UK to Australia for eight years, but feels “daunted” — having her chair broken isn’t the only thing to worry about.

“The problem is the process and training — ultimately [assistance staff] aren’t trained to look after human beings, but to move luggage,” she says.

“I don’t feel I get an equal service to others. I pay the same price as everyone else but I can’t even access the toilet independently. Not a week goes by without a headline about assistance failures, but we’re not viewed as important enough a customer group.”

Once on the airplane lands, the problems don’t end. Late flights mean passengers in need of assistance can be last to board, which could separate them from potentially life-saving carry-on luggage. Airplanes are not required to have ADA compliant bathrooms. The Department of Transportation proposed a possible rule that would require new aircraft to provide accessible bathrooms… in 20 years.

Getting off the plane isn’t any easier. It seems at least once a week this year there’s a story about a person with a disability left on a plane for hours or stranded at airports after their wheel chair or critical accessibility equipment were lost or badly damaged.

The whole thing is heartbreaking. We all need to demand better of the airlines. Read CNN’s full report here.

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