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BA 762 Emergency Enlivens London Heathrow Accessibility Audit

HeathrowWhat were the odds! Seconds into a walk and talk accessibility audit of Heathrow’s Terminal 3 surprise hits as flight BA 762 performs an emergency landing with an engine on fire. 

 

24 May 2013, a cold Friday morning we at Reduced Mobility Rights will remember for a long time.

 

London Heathrow Airport is often headline news on this website. Be it because Heathrow is one of the two major UK airports in our backyard, be it because it is the largest European airport by total passenger traffic, be it because it provides assistance to over 900,000 passengers with special needs per year, London Heathrow is more often than not under the spotlight.

 

Because of the airport’s size, a series of separate assessment visits has been agreed, starting with Terminal 3 this May, ending with Heathrow’s newest terminal, T2, towards the end of the year.

 

On 24 May, shortly after 8am in the morning we report to the meeting point at Terminal 5. Mark Hicks, Heathrow’s Head BA 762 Emergency Landingof Passengers Support, welcomes us. We start our tour with a visit to the airport’s headquarters, located in the Terminal. As we walk by Heathrow’s Crisis room the red light goes on and sirens go off. Hicks dashes into the Crisis room to understand if this is a drill or a real emergency. As he emerges from the room, the look on his face leaves no room for interpretation. British Airways flight 762 is about to perform an emergency landing, after losing one engine at take-off, the remaining one engulfed in flames. The lives of 80 souls on board are staring into the abyss. 

 

We follow Mark Hicks to one of the observation points overlooking Heathrow’s North runway. We get our yes on the aircraft just when passengers are evacuating via emergency slides. The atmosphere is surreal; the airport is at a standstill after both its runways were closed. We quickly head back towards the Terminal. During the short walk we learn that all passengers and crew are unhurt.  Hicks heads to coordinate services for passengers of flight 762, and setting contingency plans into motion to provide support to the thousands stranded inside Heathrow’s terminals. 

 

What was initially planned as a normal assessment has now become the rare opportunity to audit the

airport’s assistance services during a real emergency. 

 

Mark Hicks hands us over to the lovely Jayne Sharp, Heathrow’s PRM manager. We hop on the Heathrow Express for the short ride from T5 to T3. 

 

Due to circumstances, our original assessment plan has now changed, our focus diverted on assessing crisis management and how the infrastructure and assistance services cope with the emergency.

 

Upon entering Terminal 3 we meet Andy Wright, managing director at Accessible Travel and Leisure. Couple of weeks ahead of our visit Andy volunteered to be our guest star model for the day. Andy is waiting for us at the special assistance departure lounge located near security checkpoint. 

 

Staxi Chair London HeathrowIt’s a busy morning at Heathrow, and Staxi chairs come and go from the lounge.

 

The practical, yet ugly Staxi transport chair is a signature feature of special assistance services at London Heathrow airport. Airport operators love this alternative to conventional wheelchairs because of its longevity and low maintenance cost; not to mention that nobody steals it, as its Canadian manufacturer highlights. “They are not attractive targets of theft because they cannot be self-propelled, cannot be collapsed and are conspicuous.”

 

The chair’s safety is guaranteed by dual interconnected brakes that will instantly engage if the assistance agent lets go, an essential feature when moving around Heathrow’s T3 uneven horizontal circulation. User have mixed feelings, appreciating the higher seat design and the ease of transfer movable armrests provide whilst complaining about seating comfort due to the chair’s poor padding.

 

Omniserv, Heathrow’s contracted assistance provider, says this chair is normally used to assist passengers with mild reduced mobility, whereas passengers with greater needs for assistance are helped with conventional wheelchairs.

 

Despite the on-going emergency situation we seamlessly make our way through security. Departure halls are rapidly filling up with passengers waiting to learn if their flights will depart. We arrive at one of the special assistance lounges airside, the one closer to restaurants and shops. Upon entering, BA announces the cancellation of hundreds of short haul flights, whilst the airport informs that one runaway has now reopened. 

 

The lounge is very busy. Some passengers with special needs are being assisted rebooking their flights; others make different arrangements as their flights have been cancelled. Meanwhile, staffs are looking after those passengers whose flights have been delayed. Complimentary snacks and drinks are being sourced to ease the wait. Busy and complex, but not chaotic, assistance flows quite well during the emergency. 

 

We start our journey towards Heathrow Terminal 3 Achilles’ Heel, the farthest Pier 7. The pier is mostly used

by Virgin Atlantic Airways. It is a good 15 to 20 minute walk in normal circumstances, obviously longer when wheeled. 

 

Walkways are available, covering half the distance between shopping and eateries halls and gates. However, the walkways should be fitted with audio warning signals to enhance safety. Because of traffic volumes, buggies are the best option to help passengers from and to gates. However, the right wing of the pier is not accessible to buggies because of insufficient width of its corridor.

 

The backward journey is even more problematic, as only one elevator guarantees vertical circulation for wheelchair users. Halfway through, a small special assistance waiting lounge appears. This lounge is the designated waiting area for connecting passengers with special needs. The lounge is beyond basic, its location far from desirable. The biggest problem is access to toilets, the nearest being 100 meters away, snacks and drinks. The lounge provides complimentary still water. We pointed out that room should be made to place vending machines.

 

From the connections lounge we make our way back into the departure halls. It is time to inspect an accessible toilet. Andy WrightAndy Wright graciously indulges us, and helps with this assessment. Accessible toilets are spacious and provide users all they may need. Panic buttons are in place and operational. However, we are not satisfied with the overall number of toilets available through the terminal, notably in the piers. This is an area requiring attention when refurbishing this outdated building.

 

Upon returning landside we get into an elevator. It is fitted with an induction loop, but doesn’t feature Braille embossment. This is an area requiring action across all London Heathrow airport terminal buildings. 

 

We make our way back to Terminal 5, by far the most affected by the emergency being home of British Airways. The terminal looks busier than ever, a mix of stranded passengers trying to find alternative transportation, German football fans arriving for the UEFA Champions League Final, scores of holidaymakers doing their utmost to save their Bank Holiday travel plans. 

 

Mark Hicks re-joins us. It is 2pm in the afternoon, and he looks visibly tired. He doesn’t know yet, but his long day will end 13 hours later, at 3am in the morning. 

 

He escorts us towards the short term parking as we share our initial findings. Older infrastructure remains an issue at this oversized airport, and the use of remote and isolated assistance lounges requires rethinking to make passengers’ experience less solitary and more enjoyable. 

 

On the positive side, emergency management works just fine. We can actually attest that passengers with special needs where the best looked after during this otherwise hectic and slightly chaotic day. Infrastructure, passengers flow management, special needs policies and procedures can always be improved. However, vulnerable passengers emergency management is something airport must get right at all times. On 24 May, London Heathrow earned the highest honours delivering caring special needs assistance while dealing with a major crisis.

 

The assessment of London Heathrow Terminal 3 is the last one in phase one of a major review of accessibility and access services at airports across Europe. Reduced Mobility Rights findings are published in the “EU Airports Accessibility and Assistance Services Research” which has now been released to the public. First of its kind, the cutting edge report describes critical issues with accessibility  and assistance services available to passengers with special needs. The innovative audit methodology used to assess 18 airports, seven of which among the 10 busiest in Europe by total passenger traffic, was crucial to identify critical areas. The research is now available for purchase online.

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About the author

 

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Reduced Mobility Rights, Roberto Castiglioni is an expert of airport accessibility, management and support procedures of passengers with special needs and air travel related regulations. He has been a frequent flyer for the past three decades and has several years of experience as travelling partner of a passenger who requires assistance.

 

Roberto provides accessibility and access consulting services to airports and airlines. He is a member of the UK Civil Aviation Authority Access To Air Travel Working Group. He is also a member of the Easyjet Special Assistance Advisory Group. Esaag provides Easyjet with strategic guidance and practical advice on the evolving needs of passengers requiring special assistance.

 

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