Access to aviation for all is a right not a privilege
By Vincent Nichol, a specialist aviation lawyer at Irwin Mitchell
Although air travel is back on the cards after a hiatus during the pandemic, it continues to present challenges for some passengers, particularly those who are less mobile.
The recent struggles of BBC journalist Frank Gardner – who was left on an aircraft with no way to disembark – have yet again highlighted the issues many people face. Many of our clients struggle with mobility and other medical issues, and so here we have set out some top tips for those affected.
Passengers with a disability or reduced mobility – when travelling to or from the UK and/or on a UK carrier – are legally entitled to “special assistance.” Notice usually needs to be given to the carrier in advance, often up to 48 hours before scheduled take-off.
It's a good idea for passengers to flag the need for assistance at the time of booking, or as soon as possible, and review the carrier’s general conditions of carriage - see further below. Consideration should also be given to the level of assistance needed; e.g. whether this will be needed from the time that a passenger arrives at the airport, or whether assistance is needed with a specific part of the journey, such as embarking the aircraft.
Airlines are generally happy to help, but need to be given adequate notice of any specific requirements by passengers. They may need to coordinate with other parties, such as airport authorities and ground handlers, to provide the assistance required. If in any doubt – or if the information is not clear from the airline’s website – it is best to contact the airline directly, preferably in writing.
For passengers who require the use of mobility equipment such as electronic wheelchairs or scooters, it's a good idea to contact the airline before their flight to advise them of the make and model of their equipment, as well as the approximate value. This type of equipment will usually need to go into the hold during a flight, and contacting the airline in advance will help with safe storage during travel.
Passengers should note that airlines’ liability for damage to such equipment is often limited under international law to about £1,500 unless a “special declaration” has been made, and a supplementary sum paid.
A full analysis of the relevant liability framework is beyond the scope of this article, but best practice for passengers is to raise the issue with the carrier as early as possible. The UK Department for Transport is currently looking at removing or altering these limits for domestic flights.
The carrier may need advance information regarding the type of battery the equipment contains, if any. Lithium ion batteries have caused significant problems on aircraft in the past, and some airlines may be reluctant, or completely refuse, to carry devices containing these. Passengers should also be sure to check the dimensions of their mobility equipment in the event the carrier has restrictions on these.
As for all holidays, taking out comprehensive travel insurance is highly recommended. Whilst it is hoped that passengers will not need to use their insurance, it is something which they should always procure, making sure that their policy covers their needs. Passengers with mobility issues should ensure that their policy specifically covers them and any specialist equipment, such as wheelchairs or scooters.
If passengers rely on medication, this should be carried with them in their cabin baggage, rather than in the hold with their checked baggage. The unfortunate reality is that, occasionally, checked baggage is misplaced, left behind, or incorrectly routed. Although carriers are often liable for “damage occasioned by delay” to baggage, they invariably exclude their liability for “consequential losses” -indirect losses such as missed opportunities etc - in their general conditions of carriage, and often explicitly state passengers should not carry medication in checked baggage. There are, in addition, usually other defences to claims available to the carrier in such circumstances.
Most jurisdictions will recognise carriers’ terms and conditions as binding – but more importantly, passengers may struggle to obtain crucial prescription medication in certain destinations upon arrival, leading not only to ruined holidays, but possibly significant health complications.
Whilst air passengers who suffer from health complications are in certain circumstances rightly entitled to special treatment, their rights when travelling internationally are subject to a patchwork of laws and regulations. Few guarantees can be made as to the services and facilities they can expect to receive when travelling.
The best course of action therefore – if you are someone who requires assistance – is to alert your travel providers as early as possible of any particular needs you have.
Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in handling aviation cases at our dedicated aviation section.
If you use Twitter you may have seen Frank Gardner tweet his frustration at being left on a plane at the weekend after Heathrow Airport failed to deliver his wheelchair to him when he landed. It's a problem lots of wheelchair-users have faced - but what causes it?”