On Saturday evening, BBC journalist, Frank Gardner reported via Twitter that ground staff at Heathrow Airport had lost his wheelchair. As a result, Frank was stranded in the aeroplane for over an hour and a half while the missing item was being located.
Got the fucking T-shirt.
And I'm not the only one. Scroll down the thread that Frank started and you'll see that this experience is rife among wheelchair users. In fact, it's pretty much par for the course that a disabled passenger will experience some sort of ignominy at an airport. Even when things run smoothly, it's embarrassing. I'm not sure what their MO is, but it must read something like: "Please ensure that all disabled passengers are made to feel as disabled as possible."
Look, I get it, disabled people are annoying. We require things that able-bodied people don't. What's more, we can be really slow and cumbersome, which makes getting on and off a plane a pain in the arse for everyone involved. But how is it possible that an industry of this scale can be so dismissive toward such a large group of people?
Because, and let's be clear, this is not just an issue for Heathrow airport. This is an issue for pretty much every airport. (And train station for that matter.) For some reason, whenever a disabled person opts to use one of these transportation terminals they are essentially running the gauntlet of public humiliation.
Firstly, there is simply no space for wheelchairs on most planes. This means that we must transfer to the cabin wheelchair in order to reach our seats. For anyone who has never seen one of these contraptions, let me tell you they are nefarious bastards that feel incredibly unsafe. Plus, once you're fully strapped in, you look like Hannibal Lector during a prison transfer. It's fair to say, I hate them. But some how or other, if you have mobility issues, these chairs have become part of the standard practice for boarding and disembarking an aeroplane.
Surely, if airlines created mandatory space for wheelchair users adjacent to the doors, cabin chairs would not be needed.
Oh, I forgot, those seats are considered to be more premium and are therefore a source of greater revenue for the airline. Heaven forfend that they should be allocated to those with a disability at the cost of a few quid. And before the capitalists jump to their defense about being a business blah blah blah, think about the lost revenue due to disabled people choosing not to fly because they don't want to go through such an ordeal.
Secondly, the process of announcing oneself at the airport is often accompanied by questions like: "How far can you walk?" and "Are you sure you can't make it up a flight of stairs?" Now, I understand that people have varying degrees of disability, but there has to be a better way in which to interact with someone. Surely the line of questioning can be adjusted so that the person with disability isn't probed about their condition. Why not develop a standard questionnaire that asks the passenger what assistance they would like, as opposed to what will be provided once you disclose your medical history? Just a thought.
Anyway, the reason why I wrote this piece is because I want to back-up Frank Gardner's experience to show that it isn't a one-off. Too often I've gone through something similar and not had the energy to follow it through with a formal complaint. So how can I expect anything to change? But in this case, Frank has managed to secure meetings with Heathrow's Top Brass in a bid to improve things. I want to say thank you to him for shining a spotlight on this issue and hope he's able to have a positive effect on all our journeys.