Challenging For Change In UK Airports

Challenging For Change In UK Airports

When I was a kid we used to go on lots of family holidays so it may come as no surprise to hear that I spent much of my twenties working abroad as a holiday rep in Magalluf, Mallorca and Soldeu, Andorra (I know, I look so sweet and innocent don’t I?! NOT!) 

Those years spent in the sun are the best years of my life and they’re the reason I still love to go on holiday.  But when you have a disabled child it can be very awkward and stressful to fly.  The booking process is complicated, you need to book special assistance and make sure you actually get it, ensure the airline allocates appropriate seats and get extra baggage allowance.  You need expensive insurance, adapted hotel rooms, and the reassurance that everything you need will be provided (and the wheelchair won’t get lost)  And lets not even think about the amount of baggage and hand luggage I need to take which would make many people think we are a family of 10 not just 3!

But none of that will EVER put me off taking William on holiday because I strongly believe no one should be denied a holiday simply because of their disability. I am willing to make the phone calls, send the emails and tweet the airlines if needs be to make sure that everything goes smoothly.  We’ve even paid over the odds to fly with an airline who offered better assistance than another cheaper airline. 

However, I know that many many people aren’t able to cope with this added stress and therefore they miss out on something that 49% of UK citizens do every single year!

So I was very honoured to be invited to a meeting hosted by OCS today to learn about a reportthey commissioned into how disabled people feel about the service they receive when travelling through our airports, the report was carried out by Kay Allen OBE campaigner for inclusive rights.   

I’m sure the findings of the report won’t come as much of a shock to anyone with a disability but to those that aren’t disabled and/or work in the travel industry, I think they may be a bit of an eye opener.

If 49% of the UK population fly every year you’d expect to see 5.8 million disabled people passing through our airports but in reality the number of people who fly each year is only 2 million.  That means there are 3.8 million potential customers that airports, airlines and tour operators are missing out on.  Disabled people have money too so why is their spending power essentially being ignored?

It was great to hear the views of the people in the room when it came to special assistance and those of us with disabled children or with a disability echoed the findings of the report. Assistance can be unreliable, inconsistent and difficult to know how to book.  It isn’t always appropriate to the needs of the passenger – eg wheelchairs being offered to blind travellers.  

Those working within the industry do of course have to work within tight budgets and turn around times but it was great to see that everyone was of the same opinion, that things need to be improved across the whole industry so that everyone from the check-in staff to security, assistance staff to cabin crew and baggage handlers all have the same awareness of passenger needs.

Another discussion was about pre-booking assistance.  Many passengers know they have to pre-book and are able to do so, but others are confused about how to book it – do they do it with the airline, the travel agent, direct with the airport and how can they be sure it is booked?  Others didn’t even know it had to be pre-booked which causes difficulties for the assistance team on the ground.  Imagine having 10 people pre-booked but actually finding 40 people on a flight who need assistance – how would you manage staffing levels for that?  That is a common occurrence in this industry!

Those of us who pre-book assistance expect it to be there for us when we need it but if 30 additional people also need it then we are not going to get the immediate service we are expecting.  So could there be a way to introduce a tiered level of assistance service depending on whether you’ve pre-booked or not?

"If you book your car in for a service you don’t expect to be bumped down the queue just because someone else has arrived without a booking"

When you look at it like that it makes sense to have a tiered service doesn’t it?  I know I’d book it – heck I’d even pay for it if it was something that made travelling easier for me!

It seems that disabled passengers aren’t as valued as non-disabled travellers, why is this?  Is it because we are seen as a problem they have to fix, is it because we aren’t seen as adding to their bottom line?

"When I fly with BA I get a text telling me about my flight. When I land I get another asking me to rate my experience.  Airlines do this all the time but no one asks me the same questions about my access experience"

Overall this report found that passengers want the assistance service to allow them to feel

Independent

Valued

Confident

Included

Passengers needing assistance want to be able to access the airport in the same way everyone else does, to visit the shops, to have a coffee and be able to look around.  Not be parked in a holding area and told to wait.

46% of respondents said they didn’t go shopping while waiting for departures.

"The shops are not very accessible, aisles aren’t wide enough for a mobility scooter and queuing with the barrier tapes is a nightmare"

"Shopping! That would be a bonus.. no one offers to take me for a coffee, sometimes I’m worried about asking for guidance to the toilet"

Disabled people have money to spend – but the airport, assistance and retailers need to work together to make this possible, this is a missed business opportunity.  The report suggested a lounge style waiting area with refreshments and ‘click and deliver’ shopping services as one idea of how to improve this for passengers.

One other thing that was brought up in this meeting was something that is a real bug bear of mine… passenger codes and the way airlines and airport staff talk about disabled passengers.  Did you know that disabled passengers are referred to as a PRM – passenger with reduced mobility.  That code instantly turns someone from an actual real life human being to a simple code, a problem that needs to be solved, a job for someone’s day.  

Passengers aren’t just referred to by their codes behind the scenes though, PRM is a term used verbally throughout the industry and disabled passengers are being called this to their faces. This disgusts me and upset me when my son was referred to as PRM instead of his name, William.  Would you refer to a first class passenger as anything other than their name?  Nope! 

It’s time the codes were dropped and passengers were thought of in real human terms.  But in reality codes may be needed for computer systems etc so training of staff is essential to ensure that these codes aren’t translated to daily language and the customer is thought of and treated as a person first, not a disability.

The general consensus in the meeting and something this report shows is that in order to improve services for passengers and therefore reduce stress and encourage more travellers, training is key.

But that training needs to be consistent across the board so that airlines, airport staff, assistance staff, baggage handlers, security, immigration and anyone else along the passengers journey are all trained in the same way, all have the same level of awareness, all have the same information and can ALL help disabled passengers.

No businesses want to offer a minimum standard to their customers, yet when it comes to disabled customers this is something we see every day and whilst all these departments and businesses continue to work separately nothing will change.  By working together, championing a single way of working and allowing disabled people to have access to air travel with reduced stress and difficulties ALL of these businesses would improve their profits and their reputations.

OCS are championing these changes and working hard to improve the way services are booked and delivered so that no longer are disabled passengers seen as a problem to fix but can be seen as a customer that can add value to their business, just like any other customer can.

I can honestly say I have never sat in a room full of as many positive, passionate people as I did yesterday.  Everyone wants the same thing and everyone is determined and driven to work hard to get it, that’s not something you see every day.

Well done to all the OCS staff for taking the bull by the horns and being the leader in this, I’m sure you are going to make huge progresses and I will be championing your mission along the way and will continue to fly through your airports! 

Read the full report here

As always, please leave any comments below – I’d love to hear your views on this!

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