When Frank Gardner found himself sitting on an empty plane long after everyone else had disembarked, waiting for someone to bring him his wheelchair, he tweeted indignantly: “It happened again.”
The BBC security correspondent said the incident at London’s Heathrow Airport marked the fourth time in four years that he had been left waiting on a plane for a wheelchair.
“It’s still happening,” Gardner said. as it happens Guest host David Gray. “It is very difficult.”
He says, it still happens to other wheelchair users as well, according to responses he’s received from his now viral tweet.
“It’s quite clear, in this country, that when it comes to getting the disabled off planes, we’re the least priority. We’re the last person to leave, and that often leads to ridiculous delays,” he said.
Heathrow Airport apologizes and blames staff shortages
Gardner, who travels a lot for his work, had just boarded a Finnair flight from Helsinki to London on May 15. When the plane landed, all the other passengers got off. But he had to wait because there was no airport staff available to get his wheelchair off the hold and bring it to him.
He says he always uses his wheelchair when traveling, rather than the one provided by the airport, because it is for his body,
“They are precise pieces of equipment,” he said. “So bringing your wheelchair to the door of the plane when you land is a big problem for us. And I refuse to get off the plane without my wheelchair. I’m not going to ride on some weird Dickens gear with someone.”
It has happened again. Stuck in an empty plane at Heathrow long after everyone else has left – ‘no crew to get the wheelchair off the plane’. I’m so frustrated @Heathrow Airport It appears that disabled passengers are again the lowest priority. pic.twitter.com/yzgHOynZDn
Do not blame the airline. The UK Civil Aviation Authority states that it is the airport’s responsibility to assist passengers once the plane has landed, including recovering wheelchairs.
“The airline’s ground handling crew was late unloading the aircraft and we apologize for the inconvenience this caused,” Heathrow said in an emailed statement.
There are thousands of people with mobility issues who will not travel because they have heard about all these bad experiences and they don’t want it to happen to them.– Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent
In a statement to the BBC, the airport blamed the delay on a shortage of staff.
“As the airport rebuilds post-pandemic, all organizations across the airport are increasing resources so that we can return to a normal level of business as quickly as possible,” the airport said.
Gardner doesn’t buy that excuse. After all, he says, he was experiencing wheelchair discrimination at airports long before the pandemic began.
In 2012, he made headlines when Kenya Airways refused to let him board his flight from Heathrow because the pedestrian structure, which he uses to navigate when inside the plane, was too wide for the aisles.
In another case, he said he waited on the plane for a long time until someone showed up with the high crane he needed to get off, which enraged the captain and first officer, and carried him up the stairs themselves.
When he had to board a plane in Cambodia during a thunderstorm, he said the pilot had literally given him a ride back down the stairs. In this case, he says, he made fun of it, because it was clear to him that the airport simply did not have the infrastructure to accommodate it.
“But there is absolutely no excuse for major international airports such as Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester or Edinburgh,” he said. “And they still get it wrong. In fact, if anything, I think they’re holding back.”
Travel horror stories abound
More than half of people with disabilities in the UK reported having difficulties accessing or using airports, according to a 2018 government report.
The Washington Post reported last year that the largest US airlines have lost or damaged at least 15,425 wheelchairs or scooters since they were asked to start reporting those numbers in 2018.
Meanwhile, in Canada, many accidents of misplacing or breaking wheelchairs or scooters, or leaving wheelchair users stranded at airports, have made headlines.
“Airlines and airports are missing a beat here,” Gardner said. “There are thousands of people with mobility issues who won’t travel because they hear about all these bad experiences and they don’t want that to happen to them.”
To really make things better, Gardner says airports need to invest money and resources in implementing their access policies.
But he says the real key to change is accountability.
“I think the only way this will change for the better is when airports are fined for it,” he said. “I’m sorry to say that, because, you know, I want the airports to be successful and to make money and keep people and keep business flowing, but they aren’t scared enough yet.”
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Frank Gardner produced by Sarah Jackson.