A safe journey for disabled air passengers

Posted: 3 April 2007 | Yannis Vardakastanis, President of the European Disability Forum | No comments yet

There are more than 50 million disabled people in the European Union: men and women, young and old, married, single, with or without children, active or unemployed. Despite the fact that disabled people, representing 10 per cent of the population, can hardly be considered as a minority, they remain fairly invisible in our society. Disabled people rarely appear on our TV screens; we cannot see them in the local bus, travelling in a foreign country or running for elections.

There are more than 50 million disabled people in the European Union: men and women, young and old, married, single, with or without children, active or unemployed. Despite the fact that disabled people, representing 10 per cent of the population, can hardly be considered as a minority, they remain fairly invisible in our society. Disabled people rarely appear on our TV screens; we cannot see them in the local bus, travelling in a foreign country or running for elections.

While a significant percentage of Europeans can currently benefit from a wider choice of destinations, carriers and lower fares due to the expansion of the aviation sector and the single market, it is not often that we encounter persons with disabilities in European flights and airports. It is as if the need and pleasure of travelling did not concern this significant part of the population.

Most people probably ignore the fact that travelling by air often becomes a test of endurance and a costly experience for disabled passengers. They are often denied boarding, charged for assistance, suffer a lack of accessible information, inaccessible premises, disabled passengers’ quotas per plane and humiliations of different kinds. Unfortunately these practices still exist in the civil aviation sector. I remember the case of a fully mobile woman with no arms who was forced by an important air company to disembark from an aircraft before the take-off on the pretext that she was unable to do up her own seat belt. The company claimed that its personnel would not be authorised to do up her seatbelt for liability reasons. There have also been numerous complaints received by the European Disability Forum regarding disabled passengers that do not obtain assistance at airports or that have to pay for it. Sometimes they even have to face disproportionate assistance, as they are taken in charge against their will and not allowed to get to the boarding point by their own means.

Unfortunately, for disabled passengers the increased competition due to the opening up of the market has all too often meant low quality travel, and even discrimination, rather than the opposite.

For the European Disability Forum (EDF), the umbrella organisation that for the past ten years has defended the rights of disabled people at EU level, the need for legislation in this field has become imperative. The voluntary commitments between airports and airlines had proven to be unsuccessful in tackling discrimination against disabled people. Even the adoption in 2004 of the European Regulation establishing common rules on compensation and assistance to all passengers in the event of denied boarding and of cancellation or long flight delays, could not guarantee equal treatment for disabled passengers and a seamless journey.

Our lobby started in 2002, when the European Commission published its consultation paper on whether any legal measures should be taken on Community level or not, in order to strengthen the rights of disabled air passengers. The result of this consultation among the relevant stakeholders was overwhelming and highlighted two key principles. Firstly: disabled people should not be denied boarding; secondly, disabled people should receive assistance without additional charge. An important point of disagreement was nevertheless the share of responsibilities: should the assistance provision be the responsibility of the airlines, the airports or the independent service providers?

This specific question was tackled three years later, following the presentation of a new Commission proposal in 2005. EDF had waited for a long time for this proposal and by this time, had significantly multiplied its contact with the European institutions and the industry in order to facilitate its adoption. The airports were among the stakeholders that, from the beginning, supported the proposal for a Regulation. For the European disability movement, the proposal was a pioneer – not only in the European transport sector, but also for being the first proposal for disability-specific legislation ever presented at European Union level.

The new Regulation: what impact for disabled passengers?

The Regulation on the rights of disabled people traveling by air was finally adopted on July 2006 and was largely celebrated by the extensive network of EDF member organisations in the 27 EU Member States. EDF’s satisfaction was twice over: firstly, the new piece of legislation was about to change the difficult situation faced by disabled people when traveling by air; secondly, it was the successful result of intensive negotiations between all stakeholders involved in the process.

The Regulation, initially targeted to people with reduced mobility, protects all disabled people from discrimination, including ‘any person with reduced mobility or a sensory impairment, intellectual disability or any other cause of disability, or age and whose situation needs appropriate attention and the adaptation to his or her particular needs of the service made available to all passengers’. This was such an important point for the European Disability Forum that we even lobbied the European Commission to change the initial title of the draft document. Indeed, people with sensory disabilities, such as blind or deaf people, people with intellectual or invisible disabilities face as much discrimination as those with reduced mobility. We have received many complaints from people with intellectual disabilities to whom boarding was denied for unjustified ‘safety reasons’. We have also been informed about blind people, with no mobility impairments, forced to use a wheelchair in order to receive assistance on the ground.

As a result of the new Regulation, disabled people will have the same opportunity to travel by air as any other passenger. This means that an airline shall not refuse booking or boarding on the ground of disability. It also implies being provided with an uninterrupted assistance that is adapted to the individual needs of each passenger, from the point of arrival at the airport, to the point of departure. The assistance should be provided, at no additional charge, by a person who has undergone disability awareness and disability equality training. Disabled passengers now have the right to receive information in accessible formats, to travel with their guide dogs on board and to move to toilet facilities. They are allowed to bring their mobility equipment and assistive devices and they can be compensated if this equipment is lost or damaged during the trip.

If a disabled person considers that his or her rights according to the regulation have been infringed, he or she should contact the managing body of the airport, or the airline concerned, depending on where and by whom the discrimination occurred. If the person does not obtain satisfaction, there is still the possibility to contact any of the enforcement bodies set up by the Member States that are responsible for ensuring that the complaint will be dealt with.

The Regulation is clearly a significant step forward but remains weak in several aspects. For instance, the type of compensation and the responsibility to provide it is unclear, as it must be defined ‘in accordance with international, Community or national law’. Unfortunately, such legislation does not yet exist at national or European level. Moreover, mobility equipment and assistive devices are considered in the same way as ordinary luggage, ignoring how costly and precious this material can be.

A similar gap appears when the Regulation refers to denied boarding. A disabled person can be deprived of travelling due to ‘safety requirements established by national, Community or International law’. In other words, if the law is different in the country of departure than it is in the country of arrival, the disabled passenger might be able to travel one way, but not the way back.

Despite its efforts, the European Disability Forum did not manage to strengthen these elements of the Regulation, which could still lead to arbitrary discrimination. In most instances, discriminatory treatment is purely due to prejudice and a general lack of knowledge about disability. The situation is nevertheless much more transparent than it used to be, when air careers could apply their own internal policies and denied boarding did not require further justification. Moreover, the European Civil Aviation Conference (an intergovernmental organisation committed to promoting the development of a safe, efficient and sustainable European air transport system) is currently drafting a non-binding advisory note on this matter, in close cooperation with the EDF. This note will serve as guidelines for the interpretation of national safety legislation. Most likely, it will recommend air careers not to be very restrictive in refusing disabled people to board and will not support the principle of a disabled passengers’ quota per plane.

Implications for the industry

A European regulation is the strongest legislative act that the European Union can adopt. It does not require any implementation measures at the Member State level, but is directly applicable in all its elements. Both airlines and airports are therefore concerned by the new legislation and will have to comply with the obligations described in the annexes of the Regulation.

In particular, airports have now the responsibility to provide assistance from the point of arrival at the airport and to designate set down points at the airport, where disabled people can announce their arrival. Disability local organisations will have an important role to play in the designation of these points, as they will be consulted by the airports in order to find the best position according to local circumstances. The points of arrival shall be clearly signed and shall offer basic information about the airport, in accessible formats.

Another key implication for airports will be the setting of quality standards for the assistance provided to disabled people. These quality standards will also be set in close cooperation with the representative organisations of disabled people and concern all airports with more than 150 000 commercial passenger movements per year. Smaller airports will still need to respect all other provisions of the Regulation.

Local disability organisations and airports will also have to work hand in hand to develop and monitor disability equality and disability awareness training.

To facilitate this key cooperation between the disability movement and the airport industry, the European Disability Forum has requested its national umbrella organisations to design a specific contact person in each Member State. A preliminary version of this list has already been presented to Airports Council International, in order to help all EU airports to get in touch with the right contact person as required by the new law. This person will also facilitate cooperation with the local disability organisation, in a better position to cooperate with their local airports.
The regulation will apply with effect from 26 July 2008, except articles on denied boarding and possible derogations, which shall apply with effect from 26 July 2007. Despite the fact that European airports are not under a legal obligation to apply the rules of the obligation until that specific date, they can already start preparing in view of the application of the Regulation and even to move forward. They will have the full support of the disability movement and clear benefits in terms of image and future development.

The European Commission has recently written to all Member States to urge them to designate a body responsible for the enforcement of the Regulation. In the meantime, the Permanent Representations to the European Union of the Member State will be in charge of receiving the complaints. Member States shall lay down rules on penalties relating to infringements of the Regulation, which should be effective, proportionate and dissuasive.

For the European Disability Forum the adoption of the Regulation is much more than the result of an intensive and successful campaign. It is the beginning of a fruitful process and dialogue between the civil aviation sector and the European disability movement. Mutual understanding and close cooperation are the best way forward; not only for the full integration of citizens with disabilities, but also, for the sustainable development of the airport industry, in which the economic and social role in the European Union, cannot be denied.

In the framework of its campaign ‘1 million 4 disability’1 the European Disability forum is currently collecting one million signatures across the EU-27 for the reinforcement of European disability legislation. The civil aviation sector is the first to have taken a strong stand for disability rights. We are confident that other economic key players will follow the example.

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