Being born blind gives Lord David Blunkett a useful perspective when it comes to advocating for air travellers with disabilities, as he tells Liz Granirer.
“My first flight was way back in the 1960s,” says the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough for 23 years, Lord David Blunkett. “I had a penpal in Malta. I’d been abroad with the school to France, but I’d never been anywhere on my own. I was about 18 or 19 and I flew in a turbo-prop plane. It was both exhilarating and scary.”
Those of us with sight might assume that air travel has got easier for those with sensory disabilities, but not necessarily. For instance, once upon a time, all flights and gates were announced – these days, they’re posted on flight displays. David recalls another plus: “Air travel was pretty rare for most people [in those days] and therefore, most passengers were learning how to deal with the challenge of the airport, and the processes and technicalities and rules around flying, so you weren’t entirely on your own in being a little spooked by it.” However, there were downsides too. “People weren’t really au fait and familiar with people with special needs flying.”
Although attitudes to those with disabilities have changed considerably over the years – in no small part due to wider exposure, such as that generated by the 2012 London Paralympics – there is still some way to go. Further, regulation has come into effect which lays down the terms in which airlines are required to operate to welcome and support those with special needs. “It’s there,” says David, “but it’s by no means universally understood and certainly not consistently implemented. I travel a fair amount and some airports have got their acts together in terms of special services, but many have not. I’ve come across European airports where they’d no idea there were any regulations. It’s quite challenging to change minds and explain the necessity of changing their processes, without appearing to be belligerent or aggressive.”
It’s for this reason that David was honoured to be asked to chair the easyJet Special Advisory Assistance Group (ESAAG), set up by the budget airline in 2012, to provide the company with guidance and practical advice on the needs of passengers who require special assistance.
Getting a fair shake
What should you do if you’re not happy with the way you’ve been treated by an airport or airline? “I think you should raise it politely immediately,” says David. “Quite often, it could just be a misunderstanding. It could be that the person themselves hasn’t been provided with the guidance or training, and it just needs escalating up the management ladder at that point. An example of something not everyone in an airport would understand is what batteries for a wheelchair can be carried on the airplane and which have to go in the hold. There should always be someone who knows the answer.
“It’s also about opening up the process and saying, ‘If there’s something wrong, let’s learn from it’. That’s why it’s very important that people do raise the problems they have as a special-needs passenger, but that they do it politely and sensitively, because they’re dealing with somebody who is struggling to do the right thing. Then make sure that’s followed up. So, if they then get the service quickly, they provide a note of thanks. Equally, if things continue to go wrong, it’s really important that passengers should then raise it with the airline, because that’s how the regulation works.” So, even if was the airport that made the mistake, passengers should speak to the airline they’ve booked with.
What’s needed – and what’s changing
Much of what ESAAG recommends is applicable to all passengers, regardless of special needs. For instance, as an ageing population, many of us who enjoy travel may not be as able as we once were, but we still want to keep travelling. Chairs to sit and rest on as you trudge from passport control to some distant gate would make a huge difference.
Another request is for good communication, so you know who to speak to and how to get hold of them if your question can’t be answered on an airline’s website.
“Getting it right from the beginning is better than having to put it right later or improvise,” says David, so many new aircraft, including the ones easyJet is rolling out this year, have onboard toilet facilities which make it much easier for those in a wheelchair to use them.
Although ESAAG was set up by easyJet, David is pleased to see that the charter the group produced is being taken up by Europe-wide bodies and the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK, so things should hopefully improve for everyone.
And the dog …?
David has a lovely, very large black labrador. Does he come with him when he flies?
“Very often, if I’m travelling internally in the UK, I will take the dog and generally people are very amenable to that.”
One time, though, somebody didn’t think it through that the dog needed to stay with David on the flight. “They actually said, ‘We’ve got an extra seat’, but then discovered the seat was further down the plane. I said, ‘Frankly, you just indicated that you don’t understand at all how to deal with this. More importantly, you’re about to inconvenience the person who the dog’s sitting next to enormously, because the dog will fret if he’s not with me and he’s likely to be more of a nuisance than a help.’
“It’s only happened once, but I think it was people panicking rather than thinking straight.”
More about Liz
Liz Granirer is a freelance journalist with a special interest in food and travel (haven’t we all?!). She was born and raised in New York, but has lived in London most of her adult life. Though she came later to travel than most, now that she’s discovered the joys of it – whether its empowering solo journeys, fun times with groups of friends, romantic breaks or holidays with her son – she can’t get enough. Still on the bucket list: Vietnam, Cuba and a South Pacific atoll.