I am a PA for a lady who is a wheelchair user and this is my point of view on travelling with someone who has a physical disability.
Our most recent experience of flying was incredibly stressful. Once we had decided where we wanted to travel to (making sure that there would be accessible transport once we got as well as tourist sights we would be able to access) we attempted to book flights online. This we managed to do fairly quickly, however, then the real battle began. Hours of phone calls to premium rate lines trying to give the airline information about the wheelchair and wheelchair user. Firstly that the wheelchair would not be broken down in to pieces, no matter how much they airline wanted it to be, and secondly that the wheelchair user would have to stay in her own wheelchair up to the point of the aircraft door to then transfer to her seat (this is possible because she is able to walk a few steps when aided). After a few phone calls we thought we had finally given the airline all the information they needed, and made sure they understood that this information needed to be saved under the booking. However, once we arrived at the airport and approached the check-in desk, they had none of the information saved other than the dimensions of the wheelchair.
This sort of situation leads to the wheelchair user being frustrated (not to mention the other airline passengers who are behind us in the queue) but it becomes a situation where the wheelchair user is bullied. The airline tries to insist that she cannot stay in her own wheelchair past the book in point, even though it is physically impossible for her to use any other type of wheelchair due to her form of disability. They also said (and have said on other occasions) that they cannot guarantee bulkhead seats or seats with extra leg room because they are reserved for business class passengers only (which would cost far more than we can afford).
Once we actually get past border control and are waiting to board the plane, the airline once again try to tell the wheelchair user that she cannot go in her own chair to the plane door, and that she will have to transfer to a manual wheelchair. We finally manage to get it through to the members of staff that it is not possible and that she is going to remain in her own wheelchair to the door then she will transfer to her seat. This process of getting to her seat means ordering the high lift to get her to the back door of the plane. As we board the plane, it was certain that the toilet is not even remotely accessible and get seated (not comfortably I might add) we look out the airplane windows to see ground staff scratching their heads and waving their arms around. I even had to get a high viability vest on once and go down to the tarmac with the ground staff to tell them how to move and handle the wheelchair so they did not destroy it completely!
We get to the other end of the plane trip, to our destination and everyone else disembarks, we remain on the plane because the ground staff have no idea how to get the wheelchair off the plane and up to the door of the plane. This is even though we had explained that it needs to be put on the high lift and it needs to come to the back door of the aircraft. Once again the airline staff try to bully the wheelchair user in to transferring to an aisle chair, even though we have explained numerous times that this is not physically possible. After an hour of waiting on the aircraft, to the annoyance of not just ourselves, but the aircrew, who are supposed to have a 45 minute turn around, we finally get the chair to the back door of the plane and we have arrived at our destination.
I guess basically what I am saying is that from a PA’s point of view (or even a companion traveler) it can be an incredibly frustrating and degrading experience. No one wants to go on a holiday where they are bullied and their equipment mishandled and mistreated (even occasionally broken).
The bottom line is, there needs to be a basic training standard that is introduced to all members of staff that work at an airport, so they not only understand what is going to happen on their leg of the trip, but what is going to have to happen on everyone else’s. Communication is key, lets hope that this Trailblazers report and talk at parliament is the start of Airline companies and manufacturers understanding that customer comfort is a basic requirement for all passengers.
By Elke Raftery