On the heels of Frank Gardner’s nearly two-hour wait to be reunited with his wheelchair at Heathrow International Airport, the British government is considering strengthening their almost non-existent accessible air travel regulations. In the US, disabled passengers are entitled to “prompt” deplaning, which according to the Department of Transportation means “as soon as the rest of the passenger are deplaned”. Unfortunately that’s not the way things work in the UK.
In the UK, airport personnel are required to provide assistance to disabled passengers at airports, but the guidelines are very broad and they certainly don’t include any time limits. So how long is too long to wait on an airplane while your assistive device is located? I think everyone — especially Mr. Gardner — agrees that 100 minutes is too long.
Following the Gardner incident — which probably would have never made headlines had he not worked for the BBC — Heathrow’s CEO John Holland-Kaye said they would “aim” to help disabled passengers off planes within 20 minutes after the last able-bodied passenger deplanes. To that end, government officials are talking with the aviation industry about developing priority storage spaces for assistive devices, so personnel can easily locate and return them to passengers in a timely manner. Additionally, the government is also considering placing a time limit on exactly how long disabled passengers should wait to deplane.
So what exactly happened in Mr. Gardner’s case? It’s not that airport personnel couldn’t locate the wheelchair, it’s just that it was sent to baggage claim instead of the gate. Clearly communication is also an issue here.
In any case, most disability advocates agree that regulations that lack financial consequences for infractions are useless. It’s not known at this time if the new British regulations will includes fines, or cover other areas of accessible air travel. They are expected to be released in 2019, so stay tuned.