End Disability Discrimination in Air Travel

Disabled people continue to face appalling discrimination when travelling by air. This is a question of equality and fairness and has been going on far too long. Things must change. I’m aware that these are incredibly challenging times for the aviation industry but if human rights matter at all then they continue to matter through difficult times and COVID-19 must not be an excuse not to act on such an important issue.

I’m grateful to my colleagues Lord Blencathra and Lord Blunkett for raising the issue in a debate in the Lords this week. Lord Blencathra, who is clearly a well-travelled man, reminded us he is unable to insure his battery-operated wheelchairs for air travel, meaning that when the “Miami baggage handlers dropped my lightweight aluminium wheelchair costing £2,500, the most I would get—after enormous hassle—would be $300.”

In 2014, as Disability Commissioner at the EHRC we supported Mr Stott in taking legal action against Thomas Cook.  Mr Stott is a permanent wheelchair user. When he booked his flight, he requested a seat next to his wife, who he relies on to assist with his toilet needs, eating and changing his sitting position. Despite requests at booking and check in Mr Stott was not seated with his wife who was then unable to attend his needs.

In 2016 we supported Athena Stevens when she sought legal action against BA and London City Airport for compensation following damage to her wheelchair. She lost the use of her wheelchair, and her independence for 8 months.  On both occasions the air carriers denied responsibility, hiding behind the Montreal convention, a series of rules for international air carriers, that limits the amount of compensation for anything that happens on board an aircraft to specific amounts and only for death, injury and lost baggage.

It is ridiculous to consider a wheelchair as baggage. We’re not talking about a suitcase or a set of golf clubs – this is a person’s mobility and independence.  Covid has helped us all understand a little more about the value of independence and freedom – but this unfair policy is trapping disabled people in a cycle of disadvantage. The UK govt and British air carriers have the moral responsibility to adjust the law and their policies – as other countries and airlines have – and welcome disabled customers back to their airlines.