How accessible is your local airport?By Charlotte Downes -
The importance of a smooth airport experience before and after a holiday cannot be underestimated. The UK Civil Aviation Authority are taking steps to make sure this experience is satisfactory for everyone, including those with accessibility needs.
They have established a new performance framework (think of it like Top Trumps for airport special assistance) and have recently published their findings. Their report stresses that airport assistance is a priority for the Association and mention the importance of help being extended to those with non-visible conditions.
Their main goal is to give people with restrictive health conditions confidence when flying.
The UK’s 30 main airports have been assessed as Very Good, Good, Taking Steps or Poor. Each was judged on the wait times for assistance, passenger satisfaction, consultation with disability organisations on the kind of help people may require and they ways in which they acted on this advice.
Only Edinburgh airport was deemed to be Poor but have since changed assistance providers and increased their budget for assistance services. Ten airports were considered Very Good. As the airports are obliged to make the findings of the CAA public, those airports considered Good or Very Good should reassure those requiring assistance that their needs will be met, whilst those Taking Steps will be held accountable for any inadequacies.
The full report defining each of the rankings is publicly available. For example, Bristol is considered Good and Southampton has been labelled as Very Good.
At Bristol, Good means kind staff at every stage who offer help quickly and efficiently. There is a quiet, separate area to have tickets and passports checked before sitting in a tucked away area to await your escort to the plane.
From personal experience at Bristol airport, I was given a boarding time and told not to worry with the departure boards. I was given my own transport to the aircraft which meant that I could get settled before other passengers arrived. When I have navigated the airport under my own steam, signage telling me how far I have left to walk was also appreciated.
Gatwick Airport (also rated as Good) clearly took their responsibility towards reduced mobility passengers seriously. Their reserved area – strictly limited to groups with booked assistance - was well staffed with updates given regarding the flights of those under their care.
Their Frankie and Benny-esque buzzer that goes off when somebody is ready to escort you to the plane works brilliantly. You can visit shops, café’s, or the toilet without having to watch the clock. I was checked into a computer so they knew who I was, where I was going and what I needed and I could be assisted as an individual.
I was relieved that London Luton are Taking Steps. Nobody wants an argument at six o’clock in the morning before being bounced between three different desks with nobody quite knowing where to send you. Once I had overcome the difficulties of checking in as an assisted passenger, the assistance agency were extremely helpful, escorting my friend and I through the airport in the midst of their wheelchair convoy.
Again we were given a separate waiting area, boarding time, and transport to the aircraft so we could get ourselves settled. I was slightly taken aback when they tried to stop us leaving the “SA bay” to get our breakfast but it wasn’t a problem once we explained what we were doing.
But with the report finding that 97% of airports have got special assistance under control, why is their new framework so significant?
Firstly, they track the progress of the main airports so that any problems that arise in the future can be addressed quickly.
Secondly, the published findings give airports an incentive to maintain their high standard, or hold them accountable for necessary improvements.
The report means travellers know what to expect when arriving at an airport which takes the edge off any stress and means they can plan adequately for measures that will make air travel easier.
But most importantly, the CAA commissioned a survey regarding passenger satisfaction which found that only 36% of people with a disability have travelled in the last year, compared to 58% without, with 10% of people with a disability having never flown, compared to 6% without.
Reasons for this vary from the health condition itself, to fear of flying, to worries about access requirements not being met. While customer satisfaction is 87% amongst passengers requiring assistance compared with 90% without, there is still a way to go to make sure everyone finds air travel accessible.
The reports under this new framework show that UK airports are heading in the right direction and changes will continue to be made for the better.