Traveling with a disability starts well before actual travel beings; careful planning is essential to hassle-free travel, thus making information gathering a key task.
Quality of information and its accessibility are of paramount importance in the planning process. The easier it is to gather complete and accurate information pertaining to the needs of disabled people, the easier the travel experience will be.
"You cannot pick up and go like everyone else does. You have to plan your trip very carefully," said Jani Nayar, executive coordinator of the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality, in an article on CNN about traveling with disabled children.
We took a closer look at accessibility and quality of information concerning assistance to disabled people on U.K. airports websites and came across a "David versus Goliath" scenario.
"David" is Belfast International Airport. 4 million passengers travelled through the airport in 2010, making Belfast International airport the second busiest airport on the island of Ireland after Dublin Airport. Belfast Airport belongs to Abertis, who also owns Stockolm airport, London Luton, Cardiff and Sanford International airport in Orlando, Florida.
"Goliath" is London Heathrow. 65,881,660 passengers travelled through the airport in 2010, making London Heathrow the busiest airport in the United Kingdom and the third busiest in the world. London Heathrow belongs to BAA Limited, who also owns London Stansted Airport, Aberdeen Airport, Edinburgh Airport, Glasgow International Airport, and Southampton Airport.
Normally one would expect "Goliath" to provide more accessible and better quality information due to size, resources also because London Heathrow is the main gateway to the United Kingdom.
We reviewed the "Special Needs" pages of both airports using the following criteria: accessibility from the website home page, quality of immediately available content, quality of downloadable content, quality of contact information within the "Special Needs" page. Below are links to reviewed pages. This assessment is accurate to 10 September 2011. Screenshots of the pages below were taken 10 September 2011.
London Heathrow (opens a new window)
Belfast Airport (opens a new window)
Accessability from the airport's website home page:
London: Good. Easily accessible via the navigation menu to the left of the homepage.
Belfast: Good. Easily accessible via module at the bottom of the home page.
Quality of immediately available content
London: Average. Too much general information, not enough detailed information related to passengers' support options. No mention of car park discounts.
Belfast: Good. Accessible and accurate information on meeting points, support options and car park discounts.
Quality of downloadable content
London: Room for improvement. Very limited, generic downloadable information. The availability of downloadable IATA AIRIMP codes adds a touch of intriguing eccentricity, since passengers cannot directly make use of or enter airlines codes.
Belfast: Very Good. Exhaustive, accurate and pertinent information. Complaint policy an asset to those passengers who may experience problems with service.
Quality of contact information within the "Special Needs" page
London: Room for improvement. No email or phone numbers to contact the service provider (OmniServ), contact customer services, or contact a complaint handler.
Belfast: Very Good. Email and phone numbers to contact the service provider (OCS), contact customer services and contact a complaint handler (inside complaint policy pdf file).
We asked Mr Mark Hicks, member of the BAA Heathrow PRM Charges Governance Group, to comment on the findings. According to him, the information found on the website meets quality standards foreseen in EU Regulation 1107/2006. "Information about the Persons with Reduced Mobility (“PRM”) service provided at Heathrow Airport is published on the Heathrow Airport website," Mr Hicks says. "That page provides background information and a link to the service levels that Heathrow Airport Limited has agreed with Omniserv for assisting those passengers needing that assistance."
According to the EU regulation, the managing body shall set quality standards for the assistance specified in Annex I and determine resource requirements for meeting them. In addition, the managing body of an airport shall publish its quality standards.
As per quality of contact information, Mr Hicks says that "Heathrow Airport Limited, who is the managing body of Heathrow Airport, does not have a formal complaints procedure but any person who wishes to contact us to make a complaint can do so through the website I identify above. The homepage has a link to “contact us” and that enables people to contact us through the feedback link".
"We also have feedback leaflets available at the airport. All comments sent to us via the website or through the feedback forms are reviewed by our passenger communications team who will then respond. If necessary the passenger communications team will liaise with the relevant operations team to obtain the information needed to deal with any questions and respond to any complaint," Mr Hicks adds.
The feedback form Mr Hicks mentions is available at the airport website "contact us" page, by clicking on the link "leave feedback here".
In normal circumstances, people with reduced mobility and their carers are already burdened by their problems and any help that can be provided to them is particularly useful. Easily accessible, detailed information to prepare their travel plans is essential to disabled people.
With 6.9 million disabled people in the U.K. alone, and with the Paralympics behind the corner, it would be useful for BAA Heathrow Airport to increase accessibility and improve quality of information for travelers with disabilities on their website. We suspect Belfast Airport does not mind if Goliath copies David, at least not this time.