Accessible air travel: what rights do disabled passengers have at airports and on flights?

“We want to make sure everyone has fair access to air travel” – so says the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which specifies the treatment disabled travellers are entitled to expect.

Aviation confers freedom on travellers to explore the world, encounter other cultures and return with a wealth of life-enhancing experiences. Yet some disabled travellers feel they get a raw deal. Passengers with reduced mobility – or “PRMs,” in the jargon beloved by the aviation industry – are sometimes let down by airlines and airports, and argue that they don’t get the opportunity to travel with dignity.

Campaigners say that the growing number of people who need special assistance should be better recognised by the aviation community, and that improved accessibility is essential.

These are the key questions and answers.

What does the law say?

The relevant legislation is known as Regulation 1107/2006 – a European Union law from 2006 that was transposed into UK legislation through the Civil Aviation (Access to Air Travel for Disabled Persons and Persons with Reduced Mobility) Regulations 2007.

The EU legislation says: “Disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility, whether caused by disability, age or any other factor, should have opportunities for air travel comparable to those of other citizens.

“Disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility have the same right as all other citizens to free movement, freedom of choice and non-discrimination. This applies to air travel as to other areas of life.

“Assistance to meet their particular needs should be provided at the airport as well as on board aircraft, by employing the necessary staff and equipment.

“In the interests of social inclusion, the persons concerned should receive this assistance without additional charge.”

How is disability defined?

The legislation says: “‘Disabled person’ or ‘person with reduced mobility’ means any person whose mobility when using transport is reduced due to any physical disability (sensory or locomotor, permanent or temporary), intellectual disability or impairment, or any other cause of disability, or age, and whose situation needs appropriate attention and the adaptation to his or her particular needs.”

The CAA says: “Special assistance is available to passengers who may need help to travel such as the elderly, those people with a physical disability, such as wheelchair users, and those who have difficulty with social interaction and communication, such as those with autism or dementia.”

How much notice is required to access special assistance?

You should tell the airline at least 48 hours before the departure of your outbound flight. This notification is deemed to cover the inbound flight as well, if that with the same airline on the same booking reference.

What do I have a right to expect from airport staff?

Assistance through every stage of the journey, including:

  • checking in baggage
  • going through security, passport control and customs
  • boarding and leaving the aircraft, “with the provision of lifts, wheelchairs or other assistance needed as appropriate”
  • proceeding from the aircraft door to the seat, and storing cabin baggage
  • reaching connecting gates when in transit
  • accessing the toilet facilities

Do staff have special training?

Any airport staff who provide “direct assistance to disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility” must have appropriate knowledge as well as disability-equality and disability-awareness training.

In addition, airport managers should “ensure that, upon recruitment, all new employees attend disability‐related training and that personnel receive refresher training courses when appropriate”.

Can airlines refuse to carry disabled passengers?

Only “for reasons which are justified on the grounds of safety and prescribed by law”. The standard exclusion is: “If the size of the aircraft or its doors makes the embarkation or carriage of that disabled person or person with reduced mobility physically impossible.”

Can I bring an assistance dog?

Yes. “Where use of a recognised assistance dog is required, this shall be accommodated,” the law says.

I was badly treated by the airport/airline. Can I claim?

Absurdly, while the law stipulates a payout of hundreds of pounds for all passengers whose flights are delayed by three hours or more, mishandling of special assistance does not qualify for compensation.

My wheelchair has been damaged. Can I claim?

Yes, but possibly not for the full amount. The law says: “Where wheelchairs or other mobility equipment or assistive devices are lost or damaged during handling at the airport or during transport on board aircraft, the passenger to whom the equipment belongs should be compensated.”

Unfortunately, this is simply under the standard Montreal Convention terms, which limits compensation to a total of around £1,150.

Can I choose any seat?

Not necessarily. Emergency exit rows, which offer extra legroom, are required to be filled by passengers who can operate the escape hatch if required. Airlines may deem such seats to be inappropriate for PRMs.

I need extra legroom. Can I be moved to business class?

Only if you pay for a business class ticket.

Am I entitled to a free seat for my companion/carer?


Is all this enough?

Not according to Disability Rights UK.

The charity has written to Rishi Sunak asking for the CAA to have powers to impose fines on airlines that:

  • damage wheelchairs or essential mobility devices
  • leave disabled passengers on flights for a prolonged period once the flight has landed
  • fail to provide adequate assistance despite prior knowledge of disabled passengers’ needs

The charity says: “The CAA’s current regime of oversight for accessible air travel is limited and ineffective.”

Campaigners say that aircraft should be redesigned to accommodate the needs of disabled passengers.

“Over the past year, the issue has been in the spotlight in the media with high-profile cases, such as those of Sophie Morgan, Tanni Grey-Thompson and Frank Gardner, where disabled passengers have had their mobility devices damaged, or been left stranded on an aircraft,” reads the letter.

“These publicised cases merely constitute the tip of the iceberg, and these issues are endemic within the aviation industry, with disabled passengers regularly suffering degrading substandard treatment at the hands of airlines or other actors.

“Such instances have a huge human impact on the dignity of disabled passengers and severely impact their confidence when travelling by air, meaning that many passengers with assistance needs will, in many cases, avoid travelling on airlines altogether.”

What about outside the UK?

Since British law is based on European Union legislation, travellers have the right to expect exactly the same treatment in France, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Greece and the remaining 22 EU nations.

In the US: “The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is a law that makes it illegal for airlines to discriminate against passengers because of their disability.”

In many other parts of the world, though, the CAA warns: “Assistance may require a fee or not be available at all.”

If you book a package holiday through a UK tour operator, you should be able to request assistance more easily.

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