Outrage as disabled BBC journalist abandoned on plane at Gatwick: ‘It’s time for fines and penalties’

The Civil Aviation Authority has written to all UK airports demanding they lay out how services for disabled passengers will be improved, or face court orders should failures continue

Outrage as disabled BBC journalist abandoned on plane at Gatwick: ‘It’s time for fines and penalties’

Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent, was stranded on the runway after flying to Gatwick with Iberia Express from the Nato summit in Madrid (Photo: Grabs/BBC/Curious Films)

By Euan O'Byrne Mulligan

The UK’s leading disability charity has called for airports that fail disabled passengers repeatedly to be fined, after a wheelchair-using BBC journalist was left abandoned on an aircraft by staff once again.

Frank Gardner, the corporation’s veteran security correspondent, was stranded on the runway after flying to Gatwick airport with Iberia Express on Thursday night as he returned from the Nato summit in Madrid.

He described the 20-minute wait for assistance as “mild”, having endured similar or worse experiences on four other occasions in the last four years. Earlier this month, a disabled woman was left alone on a grounded Gatwick flight for more than 90 minutes.

“FFS not again!” Mr Gardner tweeted. “Just back from exhausting week covering Nato summit in Madrid and quelle suprise, I’m still stick on the plane at Gatwick. Iberia crew are gone and a new crew has come on board. Just why are UK airports so consistently crap at getting disabled people off planes?”

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) wrote to all UK airports on 10 June demanding they lay out how services for disabled passengers will be improved, or face court orders should failures continue.

James Taylor, director of strategy at disability equality charity Scope, told i the issues facing disabled passengers predate the current staffing crisis engulfing the aviation industry, calling for the regulator to be granted additional powers.

He said: “Frank Gardner is being regularly let down at UK airports, and he’s a seasoned journalist and traveller with a significant profile and platform.

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FFS not again! Just back from exhausting week covering NATO summit in Madrid and quelle surprise, Im still stuck on the plane at Gatwick. Iberia crew are gone and a new crew has come onboard. Just WHY are UK airports so consistently crap at getting disabled people off planes ? pic.twitter.com/KuJz4eIJCy

— Frank Gardner (@FrankRGardner) June 30, 2022

“But this isn’t a new phenomenon, disabled people in this country were being frequently failed before current staff shortages.

“For a long time, we’ve been extremely concerned that airports, airlines, and train operators are not complying with the regulations.

“This has been going on too long. The impact is often degrading, stressful and anxiety-inducing and stops some disabled people from travelling altogether.

“It’s time that the regulations had teeth and are backed up by fines and penalties.”

Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights, said: “We now need to see tough action from the Civil Aviation Authority and from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.”

Mr Gardner backed calls for enhanced regulatory measures, tweeting: “I fully support the suggestion that only penalties and fines will change this. Repeated apologies for poor service just don’t cut it”.

Gatwick claims that the delay was caused by Iberia Express failing to book special assistance for Mr Gardner, who was left partially paralysed after being shot by al Qaeda gunmen in Saudi Arabia in 2004.

A spokesperson for Iberia Express said that a request for assistance was “registered through the notification system established with the airport”, adding that the crew highlighted the request by radio on approach and upon landing.

The airport is currently being investigated over the death of a disabled passenger who reportedly fell while attempting to leave an aircraft without assistance earlier this month.

A specially configured wheelchair is required for wheelchair users to disembark planes, due to the narrow aisle.

Passengers with a disability or reduced mobility are legally entitled to support, known as special assistance, when travelling by air.

The CAA lacks powers to fine airports or airlines that flout the law, though these could be granted by the Department for Transport (DfT).

From May 2021, the CAA was able to impose fines of £2,000 or £4,000 on airlines that failed to ensure passengers properly filled out passenger locator forms. This power was revoked in March 2022, along with the remaining Covid regulations governing air travel.

At present, the CAA can enforce passenger rights legislation and general consumer law through the courts, but not issue fines directly.

Ms Hadi, of Disability Rights, told i that the CAA’s letter earlier this month “obviously had little effect”, as she called for “tough action”.

She said: “Frank Gardner has again been forced to speak out about being left on a plane. His experience that airports in other countries get it right emphasises the appalling situation in the UK.

“We now need to see tough action from the Civil Aviation Authority and from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.”

On Thursday, the DfT revealed a 22-point plan to tackle flight disruption this summer, aimed at avoiding a repeat of the chaos seen at airports during the Easter and Jubilee holidays.

Tens of thousands of passengers have suffered flight cancellations and huge queues at airports in recent months, largely due to staff shortages following a collapse in demand for air travel during the pandemic.

While the plan reiterated the CAA’s earlier demand that “disabled and less mobile passengers must be given assistance they require”, new fining powers were absent.

Rocio Concha, Which? director of policy and advocacy, said: “The shameful scenes at UK airports show why passengers need their rights to be strengthened and enforced by a strong regulator and compensation regime.

“The Government should give the CAA powers to fine airlines directly when they flout the law, and drop plans to cut passenger compensation for delayed and cancelled domestic flights.”

A Gatwick spokesperson said: “We apologise for the delay Mr Gardner experienced on this occasion. We have been working closely with our assistance provider, Wilson James, to establish the reasons for this.

“At this stage, it appears there was no special assistance booking from the airline for Mr Gardner. However, as soon as we were made aware, the team responded and Mr Gardner received assistance within 20 minutes.

“We strive to provide the best possible service to all passengers so will continue to look into this with Wilson James and the airline concerned. We apologise again for any delay Mr Gardner experienced returning from the Nato summit in Madrid.”

A spokesperson for Iberia Express said: “During the boarding in Madrid (MAD), the request for assistance at Gatwick (LGW) was registered through the notification system established with the airport.

“In addition, the crew notified the request by radio during the approach to the airport, and the handling coordinator who attended the flight also requested the service by phone when disembarkation began, and upon seeing that the assistance had not arrived when the aircraft landed.

“While the service was arriving, the Iberia Express flight crew took care of Frank and another customer, who had notified the service in advance and was also waiting for assistance as both were picked up at the same time.”

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