Poor Access, incompetent assistance lacking sense of mission and understanding of purpose says an Irish disabled man about London Heathrow airport.
Irish disabled passenger Kevin Dawson shares his experience with access services at London Heathrow airport. His account has been put forward to the Civil Aviation Authority, Heathrow Airport Support Services, the Chair of the Transport committee at the London Assembly, and David Blunkett MP for comments.
I have motor neurone disease, still relatively early stages, and my experience of transiting through airports by wheelchair is quite recent. However that also perhaps leaves me quite alert to the different experiences from providers and to a kind of perspective on the lack of understanding that even some Assistance staff exhibit.
My experience at Heathrow was not appalling, but it seemed incompetent. Parts of the service seemed not to be joined up, there were basic gaps in understanding: twice I was asked to walk a distance to where there was a wheelchair, rather than it being understood as a simple basic that as a person of reduced mobility I should have the wheelchair wheeled to me.
My wife and I were travelling from Dublin to South Africa via Heathrow. Assistance was booked by the travel agent and was marked on boarding passes, for all legs from check-in to ramp and equivalents.
I found British Airways to be fine, but the service at Heathrow both outward and inward-bound was patchy and displayed some startling gaps in basic understanding - for example, airport personnel noting that an Assistance point was some distance from me, and suggesting that I walk to it rather than phoning the Assistance desk and have them come to me.
It suggests a basic lack of mission sense and understanding of purpose, which is ultimately a senior management failure. If I had attempted to transit Heathrow relying fully on the service offered, I probably would have missed both of my flights.
Outbound flights, 8 February 2013:
On arrival at Heathrow T1 with BA (BA 837) arrangements began well. An older but decidedly sprightly assistant wheeled me to the Assistance area in T1 Arrivals. Then the arrangements broke down. The desk was unable to arrange a way to bring me to my onward BA flight at T5 (BA043). The elderly assistant was left liaising with me; nobody from the desk spoke to me though I was sitting nearby. Eventually, I was told (indirectly) that no bus could be expected for ‘at least 30-40 minutes’. This began to put my connection in jeopardy. My wife and I opted for a taxi at our own cost.
The taxi brought us to T5; however, the driver had no idea which door was near an Assistance desk. We looked around. I was proceeding on two walking sticks, my wife looking around further. We located an Information desk. The gentleman there was polite, but he told us that there was an Assistance desk further down the main hall (I guessed some 50-60m) and suggested that we walk down to it. When we suggested that he might phone the Assistance desk and have helpers come to us, he agreed. I was surprised this did not occur to him.
We were brought to our Gate and boarded satisfactorily.
Inbound flights, 24 February 2013:
As in the first journey, all arrangements in Dublin and in South African airports proceeded smoothly. Once again, difficulties were encountered at Heathrow.
We arrived at T5 (BA 056) around 5.30am, and a chair brought us to a bus link. The bus dropped us at T1 and here the problems began. At the ground level just inside the building, there was a BAA man at a desk, and then just past his door, inside the building, was aHeathrow Special Assistance desk. There was signage on the Assistance desk and in the area around it, to my recollection. The BAA man indicated that we should step inside and go to that desk for service.
We stepped inside and waited at the desk for service. It was not staffed. After a number of minutes, we stepped back out to the BAA man. He indicated that a person now arriving at the desk was Assistance staff and would help us. In fact, this person turned out to be a passenger, who was just leaning on the desk.
Then a member of Assistance staff arrived at the desk on foot. He told us that this desk was no longer staffed or used and that operations had moved upstairs. There was no indication on or around the downstairs desk that this was other than the reception point, and we could have remained there for some time. He asked us to come with him, which we did after inquiring if I would have to walk far on my sticks. He said I would not. The BAA man at his post near this desk, who is the first person meeting passengers arriving at this area, appeared not to know of the change of reception point.
When we got to the upstairs Assistance desk with the Assistance staffer, he had a wheelchair at the desk. He had not brought this down, instead walking down and having us walk up. I could manage this; some travellers may not be able to and I will not be able to in a number of months. Again, he appeared not to translate the Assistance function into a sheer basic action.
We waited for 15-20 minutes, perhaps more. Nobody came to assist me. My wife and I both became somewhat agitated. The gentleman several times rang to another desk somewhere in the building, from which it seemed somebody was to be dispatched. After each call he ensured us somebody would be coming. After the 3rd or 4th call, he indicated that somebody now was coming.
Then two men arrived with wheelchairs. Neither approached us and nobody spoke to us. When we asked, we were told that they were not for us and that our assistance was still on its way. They hung around, so did we. Eventually an assistant came with a chair and I was helped on my way. We made the connection to Dublin (BA 832). Once again we had been through a period of anxiety and feared not making our plane. I told the Assistance staffer that I had no issue with him, but that the service was poor. I asked whom I might speak to. He gave me a Customer Feedback card for Omniserv and said I should use their e-mail and ask for ‘Mick’.