I have a (hopefully temporary) mobility issue that has meant that over the last 9 months or so I’ve been using special assistance when flying. The experience has been partially wonderful as I have been able to travel without the pain that standing and walking would have caused. Unfortunately, it has also been pretty horrifying, especially at some airports – notably Stanstead and Boston – where I have been treated like luggage and deposited at various points around the airport.
So, what went well?
- I got to my flights on time
- I didn’t have to do any more walking than I could manage reasonably easily
- In three of my eight journeys, I was ‘allowed’ to buy water once I got past security
- The staff were almost always lovely
- At Gatwick there is a lovely area for people to sit in relative quiet while waiting
- Both Gatwick and Heathrow had the same person taking me from the special assistance area to the gate (and on to the plane if I’d needed that), which was very helpful.
Despite how positive an experience I have had at airports like Heathrow and Gatwick, I certainly did not feel that I was receiving a service on an equal basis to non-disabled service users. I felt lucky if I was allowed to buy water (something I have always done without trouble when not using special assistance). I didn’t even try to go to any of the shops or restaurants in the terminal because it was clear that wasn’t part of the service – but for anyone else using the airport, it was a big part of the experience. On one occasion I was waiting half an hour after the flight landed before the special assistance arrived – fortunately I stayed in my seat so while it delayed me, it didn’t mean I was standing. On my most recent journey, I got off the plane to find a queue of people waiting for special assistance and no wheelchairs. I find standing painful at the moment, so I sat on the floor – as far out of the way as possible – while other passengers disembarked. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable experience.
For me, the most troubling part of the experience was being treated like luggage at the side of the corridor in three airports. Stanstead was the worst, by far. Having been waiting on the plane for 30 minutes, the driver complained about not having had a break and having worked non-stop. We arrived at the terminal and there was no-one there, but fortunately, they arrived pretty quickly. After a brief exchange between the staff (and no hello to the wheelchair users) the other passenger and I transferred to the wheelchairs and were taken into the terminal building. We were then deposited with a third passenger at the edge of the immigration hall. I asked what was happening next, but they said we would have to wait for staff to arrive, and gave no indication of how long that might take. We were joined by a fourth and fifth person soon thereafter.
After about 15 minutes a group of 4 staff. They barely spoke to any of the wheelchair users, other than to find out where we had come from so they could get our luggage. They did talk among themselves at length about unfairly the workload was divided and how awful and lazy the previous staff members were. It was totally dehumanising. It was like we were inanimate objects to be wheeled around whose thoughts, feelings and opinions simply didn’t exist. We didn’t exist as people. Conversations literally happened over our heads. Being a (temporary) wheelchair user felt disabling because of how it transformed the way these people interacted with me, considerably more than any physical barrier that I was faced with. I don’t see any circumstances in which a group of walking passengers would think it was acceptable to have themselves left in the corner of a room for an undetermined amount of time. I don’t think airport staff would think it was acceptable to talk about their colleagues and work environment in the way that they did in front of people without mobility impairments. I have no idea why these things are considered acceptable and even normal for wheelchair users.
The other two airports where I was parked in the corner were less awful experiences. Staff were clearly over stretched but they didn’t spend the entire time speaking to each other as though I didn’t exist. I had several different people moving me around the space, and was literally parked in corners and corridors – but I was told when I would be collected. The communication was much better, and I was treated like a human being.
The thing is, right now I have a choice about using special assitance. I probably could get through the airport on my own, but I would be in considerable pain and it would impact on the days following the flight. With that choice, the experience felt bad to me, but I have no doubt whatsoever that if I had no choice other than to use special assistance it would feel a lot worse. Especially if I were traveling with a work colleague or friend. It is a little bit soul destroying every time I do it., though.
If the equality act worked, it would be different. Until it does, I guess I’ll be grateful for those times I can buy water and get treated like a human.