In this exclusive interview, David Blunkett, Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, shares his personal experience about flying, and his recipe to make flying better for everyone.
Blind since birth, Blunkett served as Education and Employment Secretary, Home Secretary and Work and Pensions Secretary in Tony Blair's Cabinet.
Q. David, can you remember your first flight and your emotions during preparations leading to it?
A. My first flight was in an old propeller plane to Malta. I had had a pen friend there for some time and I went out to see her and her family.
Any first flight is both exhilarating and extremely stressful. Exhilarating because it is the first time but stressful because you have no idea how to handle what happens at the airport or on the plane itself. It is like taking and exam for the first time. It becomes easy once you know how to do it but it is daunting when everyone else around you knows how to handle the processes and systems and you haven’t got a clue. That of course is happening to people all the time, although flying from an early age had taken much of the daunting nature out of it for those in their teens or later.
People were actually extremely helpful. One of the ironies of early flying was that not that many people were doing it and therefore people were looked after much better. There was a presumption that you didn’t know what the procedures were (and therefore apart from the fact that there were fewer people and therefore more time to give) there was more attention to ensuring that you did know what to do and that you were ‘looked after’. This applied to non-disabled as well as passengers with special needs.
Q. As veteran frequent flyer, would you say flying is a seamless experience, or you still feel somehow challenging preparing for a flight?
A. Obviously we cannot go back to those easy going days but we can instil through training the very simple message that many people are still stressed out by flying, even if they have been doing it for many years.
That applies to me. Well, not quite stressed out but still with butterflies in my tummy if I am flying alone. You just don’t know what is going to happen in terms of events in the airports as well as boarding and flying. Of course the airport procedures and the operations to provide assistance are different to that for booking, and boarding (and of course the flight). This is something that I am very keen to resolve - the interface between the responsibility of the airport (including under European regulations for European airports) and the responsibility and moral duty of the airlines.
Q. Which are the main changes, if any, you would like the aviation industry introduce?
A. We really do need to get this right and this is something I am keen to work on personally as well as with everyone who has been and continues to work extremely hard to improve the experience for those who have some need for assistance, or fall into the category of Passengers with Restricted Mobility.
So, for the future I would like the Department for Transport to gets its act together and decide what it is doing in terms of the replacement of the Advisory Group.
I would like airports and airlines to work together to get the connection right between their differing duties.
I would like airports and airlines to join together (separately of course) to avoid anti-competitive behaviour in terms of cutting standards in order to increase profits. In other words that there is an agreed common approach which would therefore take out the tendency for some airlines (only some) to see their profitability in terms of cheap and nasty as opposed to budget and beneficial!
Actually, I believe that not only because there is growing awareness and quite rightly growing demand for equality from people with special needs, but because of an ageing population, that doing things well and doing things right will become not only a mark of quality but actually a way to attract passengers (including to budget airlines).
That is why in Chairing the Independent Advisory Group, I am keen to ensure that this is not a one off exercise but an on-going approach which continues to update (beating previous best) for the years to come.
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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 disabilities and air travel related disability regulations. He has been a frequent flyer for the past three decades and has several years of experience as travelling partner of a passenger with reduced mobility.
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.