Disabled children traveling through London Heathrow are likely to face challenges due to shortage of wheelchairs and issues with repatriation of individual devices.
The largest airport in the U.K. and third busiest in the world, Heathrow airport sees over 70,000 disabled passengers transit through its terminals every month. "We provide assistance to an average of 75,000 passengers per month," says Ernie Patterson, chairman of OmniServ.
OmniServ provides support services to passengers with reduced mobility and disabilities on behalf of the airport owner BAA.
There are no official statistics saying how many disabled children travel through London Heathrow. "OmniServ very rarely receive a request which details that assistance is for a child, rather the notification is a standard request," Patterson explains. “We become aware that the assistance is for a child only when the passenger arrives."
Airlines communicate with OmniServ in many different ways. However, transfer of data via computer systems, the primary means of communication, appears to be the weak link.
Reduced Mobility Rights understands that most European airlines use slightly different parameters than those used in North America. OmniServ uses American built communication system. Because of this known discrepancy, fields detailing that the passenger is a child may fail to reach Omniserv.
The statistical issue is the lesser concern. "There is one child suitable wheelchair in each Terminal at London Heathrow," Ernie Patterson confirms.
Adult wheelchairs in use at Heathrow are not suitable, and not insured, to carry children. As we learned from the chairman, OmniServ usually becomes aware of the age of the passenger requesting assistance as the passenger disembarks the aircraft.
With such extremely limited availability of suitable wheelchairs, disabled children and their parents or carers, must be prepare to wait an average of 45 minutes to one hour before receiving suitable assistance.
In a meeting held on the issue on 19 September 2011, CAA managers asked both BAA and OmniServ to look into the problem. However, little has changed since.
After the meeting, BAA made changes to its website, alerting passengers traveling with disabled children to approach OmniServ directly to make sure appropriate help would be available. However, London Heathrow latest version of website no longer carries this information. The website has become quite unfriendly to passengers with reduced mobility, who must dig through the site to find what can now be defined as insufficient information. In fact, Quality Standards, that should be available by law, are nowhere to be found.
At a time when BAA boasts its readiness to provide services to the athletes participating the London Paralympics, it is rather strange to note that BAA shows such disregard concerning information available to passengers with reduced mobility.
Contacted on the issue, BAA's PRM Manager Mark Hicks said to have passed the question to the Web team for comment.
If problems with wheelchair suitable for children were not enough, repatriation of personal mobility devices at the aircraft door at London Heathrow remains a gamble.
Airlines using Menzies Aviation as ground handling agent are likely to not being able to provide the repatriation service, even if pre-booked and confirmed.
In abidance to Health and Safety regulations, Menzies Aviation refuses to return any item exceeding 5 kilograms to the aircraft doors. We have first-hand knowledge that this includes personal wheelchairs as well.
Airlines docking at London Heathrow terminals who operate in-house or other ground handling services do not have such policy and deliver mobility devices of all type at the aircraft door.
"The airlines are responsible for ensuring that wheelchairs are returned to the athletes and it is our responsibility, through our service provider Omniserv, to assist the athletes from their cabin seat and into their own wheelchairs, where they can then self-mobilise and continue on into the terminal building," says BAA.
However, this appears to be BAA's erroneous interpretation of Regulation EU1107/2006, which says otherwise.
"ANNEX I ~ Assistance under the responsibility of the managing bodies of airports: Ground handling of all necessary mobility equipment, including equipment such as electric wheelchairs subject to warning of 48 hours and to possible limitations of space on board the aircraft, and subject to the application of relevant legislation concerning dangerous goods."
Reduced Mobility Rights is in the process of requesting the Civil Aviation Authority to clarify the matter.
"We are and have been for some time focussed on a number of work streams with the Airport and Airlines which will ensure we are prepared and ready to cope with the additional requirements of the Paralympic Games," Ernie Patterson said.
While BAA and OmniServ proclaim their preparedness for the Paralympics, ordinary disabled passengers, especially children with reduced mobility, continue to face significant challenges while transiting through London Heathrow; lack of pertinent information, shortage of suitable wheelchairs, and face the possibility of not being returned their own mobility devices at the aircraft door despite pre-booking the service.