When Frank Gardner found himself sitting on an empty airplane long after everyone else had disembarked, waiting for someone to bring him his wheelchair, he tweeted in exasperation: “It’s happened again.”
The BBC security correspondent says the incident at Heathrow Airport in London marked the fourth time in four years that he’s been left waiting on a plane for wheelchair accommodations.
“It keeps on happening,” Gardner told As It Happens guest host David Gray. “And it’s just so tedious.”
It keeps on happening to other wheelchair users too, he says, according to the responses he’s received from his now-viral tweet.
“Quite clearly, certainly in this country, when it comes to getting disabled people off planes, we are the lowest priority. We’re the last person to be off, and often it results in absurd delays,” he said.
Heathrow apologizes, blames staff shortage
Gardner, who travels frequently for his work, had just taken a Finnair flight from Helsinki to London on May 15. When the plane landed, all the other passengers disembarked. But he had to wait behind because there were no airport staff available to get his wheelchair from the hold and bring it to him.
He says he always uses his own wheelchair when traveling, rather than ones provided by the airport, because it’s customized for his body,
“They are precision pieces of kit,” he said. “So having your wheelchair brought up to the door of the plane when it lands is a big deal for us. And I refuse to get off the plane without my own wheelchair. I won’t get into some Dickensian contraption that’s wheeled up by somebody .”
It’s happened again. Stuck on an empty plane at Heathrow airport long after everyone else is off – ‘no staff to get my wheelchair off the plane’. I am SO disappointed with @HeathrowAirport as disabled passengers are once again apparently the lowest priority. pic.twitter.com/yzgHOynZDn
He doesn’t blame the airline. The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority states that it’s the airport’s responsibility to assist travelers once the plane has landed, including retrieving wheelchairs.
“The airline’s ground handling crew were delayed in offloading the aircraft and we apologize for the inconvenience this caused,” Heathrow said in an emailed statement.
There are thousands of people with mobility issues who won’t fly because they hear about all these bad experiences and they don’t want it to happen to them.– Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent
In a statement to the BBC, the airport also blamed the delay on staffing shortages.
“As the airport rebuilds post-pandemic, all organizations across the airport are scaling-up resources so that we can get back to operating at a more normal level as quickly as possible,” the airport said.
Gardner doesn’t buy that excuse. After all, he says, he’s been experiencing wheelchair discrimination at airports long before the pandemic began.
In 2012, he made headlines when Kenya Airlines refused to let him board his flight out of Heathrow because his walker frame, which he uses to move around when he’s inside the plane, was too wide for the aisles.
In another case, he says he waited on a plane so long for someone to show up with the high-lift he requires to disembark, that the captain and first officer became exasperated, and carried him down the stairs themselves.
When he had to board a flight in Cambodia during a thunderstorm, he says the pilot literally gave him a piggyback ride up the stairs. In that case, he says he laughed it off, as it was clear to him the airport simply didn’t have the necessary infrastructure to accommodate him.
“But there is absolutely no excuse for big international airports like Heathrow or Gatwick or Manchester or Edinburgh,” he said. “And they are still getting it wrong. In fact, if anything, I think they’re slipping backwards.”
Travel horror stories abound
More than half of people with disabilities in the UK report having accessing or using airports, according to a government report released in 2018.
The largest airlines in the US have lost or damaged at least 15,425 wheelchairs or scooters since they were required to start reporting those numbers in 2018, the Washington Post reported last year.
In Canada, meanwhile, numerous incidents of wheelchairs or scooters being misplaced or broken, or wheelchair users being left stranded at airports have made headlines.
“Airlines and airports are missing a trick here. There are thousands of people with mobility issues who won’t fly because they hear about all these bad experiences and they don’t want it to happen to them,” Gardner said.
To really make things better, Gardner says airports need to invest money and resources into implementing their accessibility policies.
But the real key to change, he says, is accountability.
“I think the only way this is going to change for the better is when airports get fined for this,” he said. “I’m sorry to say it, because, you know, I want airports to be successful and to make money and to keep people and keep the business flowing, but they are not scared enough yet.”
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Frank Gardner produced by Sarah Jackson.