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How Can Disabled People Be Forgotten on a Plane?

  • Written by Roberto Castiglioni

tui aircraftBill and Shirley George, from Bury, say they found themselves left behind on the aircraft waiting for wheelchair assistance after arriving from Malaga shortly after the plane landed.

The elderly couple had been on holiday in Malaga for two weeks and were returning to Manchester when Bill says they were left behind because there was no wheelchair assistance for disabled passengers to help them off the plane and into the terminal building.
The plane eventually left Malaga for Manchester Airport but was 11 hours behind schedule. After landing, the pair remained seated after the cabin crew promised someone would come and help them get off the plane. However, after all the passengers had left, they claimed they were left in their seats as the crew and pilot also disembarked. “It was horrendous,” George told the media. “They just left us on the plane and we were stranded. There was us and another four passengers, but nobody came to help.”
87-year-old Bill was alarmed by the delay and got off the plane to look for a wheelchair as he felt no one was coming. After an hour, a staff member wearing a TUI branded jacket eventually came to help them off the plane.
Bill claims to have been forced to push the wheelchair of his 88-year-old wife through the terminal before they eventually left the airport at 3 am.
"We're very sorry to hear of Mr. and Mrs. George's experience. Unfortunately, due to the delayed flight, there were limited ground handlers available when it landed which resulted in a delay in assisting passengers off the aircraft,” a spokesperson for TUI said. “We can confirm that our crew waited for all passengers to depart the aircraft and no customers were left on board at any time."
"We are sorry to hear of these passengers' experience and are working with the airline and other third parties involved to understand the circumstances that led to the delay in disembarking them from the aircraft," a spokesperson for Manchester airport said.
Sadly, this is not the first time that this has happened to someone with a disability at Manchester Airport or other airports around the U.K. this year.
However, this incident raises a number of red flags, starting with how it is possible that people with disabilities can be left behind on an allegedly empty plane. 
Suggesting this incident should follow a standard complaint handling route is unreasonable. The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority, which has a duty to enforce anti-discrimination laws, should review every detail of this case.
Under the law, airports are responsible for providing assistance to persons with disabilities. They can, however, delegate the provision of this to third parties. They remain liable for ensuring the service is provided within legal standards. In this incident, the airport's response suggests that they do not have such supervision in place. This is unacceptable. Again and again, airports across the country have been pointing their fingers at their contracted service providers.
I think it would be a good idea for the UK Civil Aviation Authority to firmly remind all airports of their direct liability regarding their duty to ensure passengers' safety and highlight the need for airports to have tools in place to supervise the work of their service providers at all times. Failure to comply with this directive should amount to a breach of care and gross negligence.
There are serious questions around Bill’s report that suggest the cockpit and cabin crew left before all passengers had disembarked. It should be straightforward to probe Bill's allegation that he and Shirley were left alone on the aircraft and, if proven genuine, this would amount to a major security breach alongside gross negligence. Once again, this is work for the U.K. CAA and I’d expect them to order a probe into this allegation immediately.
Finally, even someone as understanding as me finds the justification put forward by the airline irritating. The duty of care to persons with disabilities is one of the most important issues that fall within the scope of responsibility. Staff shortages cannot be an excuse for this unforgivable failure.
Ground handlers rely on IT to ensure that requests for assistance are documented and met. This is done even when things like late arrivals come around. In this incident, it would seem that the ground handler fell asleep at the wheel. No one in charge, and no one supervising those in charge, all leading to disabled elderly being neglected.
The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority should change its current light-touch approach and take firm corrective action to prevent these incidents from happening again.
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