Whilst many airports are being slammed for long queues, Manchester Airport apparently took it to the next level with a sequel of service failures that directly affected disabled people. Managers at the airport have acknowledged these incidents and have apologized for them but is that enough?
Airports across the world have been singled out by a string of bad headlines for an unexpected surge in passenger traffic, but Manchester airport made headlines for unforgivable blunders when it let down disabled customers that had pre-booked their assistance.
Kate Croston shared her mother’s harrowing experience at Manchester airport. “My mother flew out of Manchester to visit me in Australia. She couldn’t walk long distances, so I booked wheelchair assistance. On the way out in March, the plane to Singapore was delayed by over an hour because no one was available to provide wheelchair assistance,” Kate said. “She arrived back in Manchester yesterday morning to be told she would have to walk from the plane. She refused and eventually they found a wheelchair and pushed her to the luggage claim. They abandoned her with other people who had booked wheelchair assistance, saying they would be back when the luggage came through. After over an hour, there were only their suitcases on the conveyer and she had to get her own luggage and struggle to walk out of the airport.”
Kate’s mother may have been one of the lucky ones being let down. Daryl Tavernor was on the Rome-Manchester flight that got delayed for some time but managed to reach its destination eventually. But after landing, the digital marketer with spinal muscular atrophy had to wait for two hours for assistance to arrive. As things couldn't get any worse, he was left stuck at border control for about another 90 minutes before calling the police.
Daryl told the Manchester Evening News: "I felt like I was being held hostage so I had no other option but to call the police". Within minutes, a few border agents had arrived and Daryl could finally leave the airport.
Bill 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.
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.
Jet2 passenger, Ray King, 68, who has osteoarthritis in both knees and one hip landed on a flight from Dalaman in the middle of the afternoon earlier this month.
Ray's wife, Pauline, pre-booked assistance to help him from the aircraft and through the hub. Ray can't go long distances or negotiate steps so she wanted to be sure he would have a comfortable journey at his own pace. However, on landing and after all other passengers had disembarked, Ray claims both they and another couple waited a further two hours for staff from assistance to arrive.
Ray told the Manchester Evening News: "Despite needing a wheelchair to negotiate the many areas of the airport I was dumped at a door and told 'there is the lift'. If it hadn't been for my wife's help I would have been helpless.”
Addressing these incidents, the airport the following statement. "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.
What the law says about assistance at airports
When the U.K. left the E.U., it adopted EC 1107/2006 as its own law to maintain a close relationship with European stakeholders and citizens. This legislation is meant to determine the duties and rights of those who have difficulty traveling. The regulation identifies subjects responsible for the provision of services and support, as well as describes the type of services available. It also establishes verification and enforcement mechanisms.
The law divides responsibility for the provision of services to disabled passengers between airports and airlines. Airports are responsible for assisting passengers from the time they arrive at the airport until they get on the flight. Airlines are responsible for assisting passengers onboard the aircraft and transporting personal wheelchairs.
The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority considers the following to be minimum acceptable standards of service for disabled passengers: Over the whole year, 98% of pre-booked disabled passengers are assisted within 20 minutes from the aircraft arriving at the stand or at the airbridge. Over the whole year, for at least 97% (98%) of arriving non-pre-booked disabled persons, assistance is available for each passenger within 45 minutes from the aircraft arriving at the stand or at the airbridge.
According to the regulator’s guidance, airports should record and investigate each incident where the assistance for each passenger (both pre-booked and non-pre-booked) is not available within 45 minutes from the aircraft arriving at the stand or at the airbridge. The investigation should determine the cause, or causes, of the service failure. A summary of the findings of the investigation for each incident should be submitted to the CAA.
Can the U.K. CAA fine airports that don’t meet minimum standards?
The short answer is no. The U.K. CAA does not have the power to issue fines, unfortunately. The debate has been going on for years given the law states that “States shall lay down rules on penalties applicable to infringements of this Regulation and shall take all the measures necessary to ensure that those rules are implemented. The penalties provided for must be effective, proportionate, and dissuasive.” Unfortunately, the U.K. Department For Transport has yet to come up with a solution to close the legal loophole.
The Civil Aviation Authority is different from other government departments that have more legal tools at their disposal. However, the one that has proven most effective for them is known as Legal Undertaking.
Within this legally binding framework, the airport undertakes to develop a performance improvement plan that will help ensure that it is able to provide a high-quality, consistent service to disabled persons. The Civil Aviation Authority is tasked with ensuring that the airport is fully compliant with all of the agreements laid out by the two parties. If any one of these agreements is not met by the airport, the CAA can swiftly take legal action against the airport.
The other option available to the CAA is a legal action for infringement of the law. This option has yet to be tested in court due to its associated costs and the complexities of the rules laid out in the legal framework.
What should be done to prevent more service failures?
It has been shown that it is very easy for experts to understand what is happening and what needs to change given certain patterns that emerge from the incident reports.
Manchester airport management does not have direct oversight of services for disabled passengers. When they say they will have to confer with their service provider ABMto learn the details of an incident it means that ABM is handling these activities without oversight. Airports are legally liable for the services they offer to their disabled customers, and when things go wrong with these services, it is the airport’s reputation that suffers.
ABM might be using an outdated IT system to process service bookings and assist customers. Modern systems have built-in reporting, forecasting tools, and alerts so that every pre-booked request for assistance is timely assigned to staff and carried out within the timeframe set by the CAA. Modern IT systems also allow other stakeholders, like airport management, to monitor performance in real-time, hence ensuring the airport retains direct oversight of its operations.
One of the key areas of concern for staff appears to be training. In every incident report, passengers mention how they are treated like a piece of luggage and not human beings. The old saying applies here: don't treat others in ways you don't want to be treated.
Operations management is in dire need of improvement. It’s troubling to read that staff shows up when they please, with no regard for set schedules or job assignments.
I am normally against regulators having to take steps against airport and airline operators, but in the case of Manchester airport, I think the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority needs to intervene with all the tools at its disposal. The time for action is now.