August 20th is a date Gary Scholes will hardly forget. He was waiting to board a Ryanair flight from Manchester to Mallorca for a long-awaited holiday, but he found himself stranded at the gate and grounded from his plans. Despite arranging for assistance weeks before his flight, the airport staff did not have a wheelchair to help him board, and arrived after the flight had already closed.
Gary and his family had to buy him a new £850 plane ticket to get him to Mallorca. There's an even more infuriating quote by a Ryanair spokesperson.
"Special assistance at Manchester Airport is provided by ABM – not by Ryanair. We sincerely regret the inconvenience caused to this passenger by ABM, who failed to provide the mobility equipment required by this passenger which resulted in him missing his flight, and who then wrongly failed to re-accommodate him on another flight."
But why do these incidents keep happening? Firstly, let’s take a look at the nuts and bolts governing assistance for persons with disabilities within the U.K. and Europe.
Assistance is a collaborative process that requires airport staff to be available to give additional support to passengers from the moment they arrive at the airport all the time up until their seat on the airplane, while airlines have a duty of care for their passengers during their flight.
Airports may directly help disabled people or sub-contract the service to a service company. If the latter, the airport remains legally liable for the provision of service. This service is paid for by airlines via the “PRM charge”, a tax the airport charges the airline for every departing passenger.
Ryanair, as well as other air carriers, has always pushed for the best possible deals when it comes to airport taxes. They have a strong reputation for challenging airports over the amount of this tax, always pushing for the lowest possible price.
There is a race to the bottom in business, as those companies that are able to deliver services at the lowest cost possible will be the ones securing successful bids. It is not uncommon for service providers to operate at a net loss hence being forced to cut corners to survive.
Despite the legal requirement that airline passengers be rebooked free of charge, Ryanair is accused of openly charging Gary to book a different flight, breaching the law. Manchester airport also breached the law by not helping Gary as required.
However, both the airport and the airline are unlikely to face any consequences for breaking the law. The UK Department for Transport never fulfilled its legal obligation to give enforcement powers to the Civil Aviation Authority, effectively leaving disabled people unable to seek redress when they feel they have been wronged by airports or airlines.
It is no surprise then that these incidents keep happening at such an alarming frequency. From 2008 every government effectively failed to protect disabled passengers’ rights and, until the DfT fulfills its legal obligations, this will continue to be the case.