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A Guide to Airports for those travelling with a disability

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Travelling with Reduced Mobility or a Disability?

Reduce the stress and get your travels off to a better start by pre-planning your airport experience.

For anyone, whether you have a disability or not, travelling through an airport can be challenging. From car parking and manoeuvring your luggage to check in, to strict security procedures and negotiating a lengthy walk to the aircraft, it can be a stressful experience.

Add to this reduced mobility or a disability of any sort and the difficulties involved in air travel can increase significantly.

With changes in legislation, UK airports have tried to up their game for disabled travellers over recent years with initiatives such as Changing Places, but most people would accept there is still more to be done in many areas. Here, we’ve tried to give an overview of some of the key issues that can impact on the airport experience for travellers with reduced mobility or a disability and we offer tips on how to help your travels go smoothly.

The one thing we would stress is that in all of our research for this article, the key to easier air travel is good planning and giving your travel agent, tour operator, airport and airline staff at least 48 hours notice of any specific requirements you may have.

It’s also worth noting that airports have a legal obligation under EU Regulation 1107/2006 to assist disabled travellers. The UK Government states that anyone who has a sensory, physical or learning disability that affects your mobility when using transport at European airports has the right to…

  • Help at specific arrival points such as the terminal entrances, at transport interchanges and in car parks.
  • Help to reach check in desks
  • Help with registration at check in
  • Help moving through airports, including to the toilets if needed.

Take a look at their website here for more information. Airports generally use a third party service company to provide their special assistance care, so you may be directed to them to finalise your requirements.

Arriving at the Airport

Whether you choose to arrive at your departure airport by car, taxi, train, or bus, knowing what accessibility is like when you arrive is key. Many airports have a Special Assistance page on their website that outlines the facilities and accessibility options they offer. Airports such as Stansted and Manchester work with DisabledGo, a specialist organisation that provides accessibility information, so remember to take a look at your departure airport’s website – we’ve listed the major airports at the end of this article, along with links to their special assistance pages.

Airport car parks will offer disabled parking spaces, which then offer access to the terminal via lifts/ramps, but please check with your departure airport that all of its car parks do offer disabled spaces or if there are specific car parks you should use. It’s also worth asking about parking costs. Some airports, such as Edinburgh, offer 30 minutes of free parking for Blue Badge holders. Short term car parks can be very expensive for a longer stay, so if you choose to use a long term car park double check that the transfer buses to the terminal are accessible if you have mobility issues.

All airports have a drop off area, but some locations in the drop off zone may be handier for you than others. If you are being dropped off by friends/family ask the airport if there’s a section they would recommend you arrive in to help you access the airport and your airline’s check-in desk.

Alternatively, you may have an accessible taxi service that you use, and many airports will be able to recommend a suitable taxi service for you. The taxi driver should be trained to assist you getting into and out of the vehicle and, crucially, he or she will have dropped off at the airport many times before so will know where is a good drop off point for you.

Access by train can vary, so you should check with your departure airport and the train company about accessibility for you. Usually if accessibility is a problem – due to a lack of lifts or excessive walking distances – if you contact the relevant train companies they can arrange assistance for you.

Similarly, bus stations at airports can sometimes involve a walk to get to the terminal building, and you’ll need to know about accessibility onto the bus. Again, contact the airport to find out which bus companies operate to the terminal and then speak directly to the relevant bus company to ensure access is suitable and to find out about any assistance they can give.

How to Obtain Assistance

Most airports offer Help Points for those requiring special assistance throughout the airport, together with a dedicated Special Assistance Desk. The locations of these can be checked either on the airport’s website or by contacting the airport prior to travel.

Help Points are generally located at key points throughout an airport to offer travellers with reduced mobility or a disability the opportunity to speak to a dedicated team if they need help. They will then know your location in the airport and can advise you on how to get to the special assistance desk if needed. Most airports also have induction loops installed, and at some airports staff who know sign language can be contacted to help you if needed.

Glasgow airport, for example, features information on the locations of all its Help Points on its website, meaning travellers can take note of these and plan their arrival around them for extra peace of mind. Aberdeen airport also offers a good range of information on its website.

Check In

You can travel with up to two items of mobility equipment free of charge if you have a disability, and this is not part of your baggage allowance. If you have an assistance dog, you can travel with it but you must follow the rules on pet travel – take a look at this assistance dog travel guide for further information.

If you think you will require help at the check-in desk please contact your departure airport and your airline at least 48 hours in advance – ideally you should advise your travel agent/tour operator/airline when you book. They will be able to advise on the assistance available to you. If you give enough notice you may be able to arrange for someone to meet you from your arrival point, accompany you to check in and assist you from here and onwards – pre-planning is the key.

Many airlines recommend that if you are travelling with your own wheelchair you should not leave this at the baggage drop, but instead take it through security all the way to aircraft boarding. This will minimise the risk of it being damaged and will be more comfortable for you than one of the airport wheelchairs. Each airline has its own policies so make sure you are clear on what is possible for you.

Lift Access

In the UK, lift access is widely available however do remember that the number of lifts is limited and at busy times it can take a while to get a free one. When planning your departure, check on the location of lifts – for example from the check in area to departures – so that you know where you’re going, and give yourself plenty of time to avoid the anxiety of rushing.

Walking Distances to Gates

At some of the larger airports the distance from check-in to security and then on to the gates can be very lengthy and take 10 minutes of walking – or more. As part of their special assistance advice many airports now detail the distances on their website, or you can contact them to find out more information. East Midlands Airport for example outlines distances to gates, toilets and catering facilities, while London Gatwick Airport offers good information on their distances including an outline map with distances and approximate times.

Security Procedures

With the security procedures currently in place it’s important to be prepared. For all travellers, items such as mobile phones, tablets and laptops need to be removed from bags and sent through scanners separately. Travellers are also often asked to remove shoes, belts, glasses and watches, so consider what you choose to wear for your flight, and remember that tubes/bottles of liquids/creams/gels can be no larger than 100ml.

For anyone travelling with a mobility aid or certain disabilities you should have a doctor’s letter outlining details of your condition and any medicines you need to travel with that may be in your hand luggage – double check with your airline what documentation you need to prove your need to carry your medications. You should also notify the screening officers of any medical implant, artificial limbs or mobility aids that may not be obvious.

If you do get asked to be searched by the security officers you can ask for it to be done in the private search area if you prefer.

Terminal Facilities

These days the major UK airports, along with many of the smaller ones, offer a vast array of facilities for travellers. Shops, restaurants, bars, duty-free, beauty treatments, massage – the list keeps getting longer. If you’re travelling with a disability most of these facilities will be accessible, but it’s still worth checking on key facilities such as toilets and restaurants - for example find out about the number and type of accessible toilets throughout the airport.

More recently some airports have also started to offer a dedicated Changing Places room. Changing Places is a campaign, designed to help those who are unable to use standard accessible toilets. They are more spacious to allow for a carer and have a range of equipment such as a height adjustable changing bench and hoist. Airports such as Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, East Midlands, Leeds Bradford and George Best Belfast City all offer these areas, with other airports also starting to introduce them.

Boarding the Aircraft

When you travel by air your airport is responsible for your welfare until you board the aircraft, after which time your airline takes over. Your airline is then responsible for you until you leave the aircraft, after which your arrival airport should provide your care.

With most airlines, if your flight is departing from a walkway connected to the terminal you can take your wheelchair (with assistance if needed) to the door of the plane. You will then be assisted to your seat, with some airlines using a special boarding chair that fits down the aisle.

Some flights depart from a remote stand and for these there may be a bus transfer - speak to the airport or airline about whether it is either an accessible low floor bus or a special bus with a lift. If you are unable to walk up the aircraft stairs, access should be available via an ambulift, raised up to the height of the plane door from where you are helped onboard. Your wheelchair will be taken by airline staff at the door of the plane and will be stored in the hold until you land, when you should then get it back at the aircraft door.

If the distances involved in getting to your aircraft are too long for you, speak to the airport or airline about pre-booking a special assistance vehicle. Always check with your airline as well on their procedures – companies such as Easyjet offer a range of information and support.

Disembarkation & Luggage Collection

Speak to you airline about their support for your disembarkation, collecting your mobility aids from the hold and any assistance they offer after you leave the aircraft through their ground staff. Remember that airports around the world vary considerably in the assistance they offer to people with reduced mobility or a disability, therefore it is important that you also contact your arrival airport well in advance to find out what help is available for you and to ask about any specific issues that directly affect you.

Luggage collection can be difficult if you have several bags to collect. If your airline is unable to offer any assistance ask if they can put you in touch with the special assistance team at your arrival airport. You can then discuss your requirements with them in advance to help ensure you have assistance with collecting your luggage, using the toilet facilities and so on. The service at your arrival airport may be more limited, so again plan ahead to try to minimise any difficulties.

Car Hire Providers

If you are thinking of booking a hire car at your arrival point, do check that your car hire supplier can provide the right adaptive driving devices or wheelchair accessible vehicle. Not all car hire providers offer these services.

It is also worth checking on accessibility to the car hire desks at your arrival airport – do they have lift or ramp access, how will you get to your hire car if it is off-site, and do they offer any help for you when signing the car hire agreement?

Mobility Aids

You can choose to take your own mobility aid with you on your travels, but please do speak with the airline about its size before you travel. It’s also worth having its dimensions written down to take with you, just in case. You will usually be able to take your own wheelchair all the way to the aircraft if you choose, alternatively most airports offer wheelchairs for your use to help you around the airport. You should contact the airport in advance to ensure one is available for you, and if needed a member of staff is on hand to push you through the airport.

Top Tips

Based on our research, these are our top tips for planning your travels from a UK airport. This list is not exhaustive, so you should consider any requirements that are specific for your situation.

  • Contact the airport/airline at least 48 hours before your departure – more if possible in order to give them plenty of time to answer your questions and organise any assistance that may be required. Ideally advise your airline/travel agent or tour operator when you book of your requirements.
  • Ensure you take a doctors letter outlining the details of your disability and any medication you may need during your time at the airport or on board the flight. Be forthcoming with this information – if a health issue isn’t evident do mention it to ensure you get the support you need.
  • Ask about any fast track available at check-in and security for those requiring special assistance.
  • At security notify the screening officers of any medical implants, artificial limbs or mobility aids, and again take medical information to verify your medical condition.
  • Check if they have dedicated disabled parking facilities in all of their car parks – if you are arriving by car. Or check on accessibility from the drop off area, train or bus stations. Also ask about the distances from the car parks and other arrival points to the terminal.
  • Find out if they have wheelchairs available for your use if needed, and if they are complimentary.
  • If you have difficulty walking ask if you can pre-book a special assistance vehicle to take you from check-in to the boarding gate – this is available at some airports.
  • If you are travelling with your own mobility aid, do write down its dimensions just in case the airline queries its size.
  • Ask about Help Points and a Special Assistance Desk at the airport so you know where to get further help if needed during your time there.
  • Check if they have any specially trained staff who can meet you and support you until you board the aircraft.
  • Check on distances to the gates, and if there is lift or ramp access to all the gates should you need it.
  • Ask about reserved seating at the gates and elsewhere in the airport.
  • If you are not self reliant, you must travel with a companion to offer assistance to you.
  • Don’t forget to also contact the airline you are flying with – they will be able to advise you on things like boarding with family/friends, travelling with mobility aids, medications on board, and so on.
  • If you are travelling with the EEC or Switzerland take time to get a free European Heath Insurance Card (EHIC) – you can apply online or on 0845 606 2030 or at the Post Office.

It sounds like a lot to think about, but remember, good pre-planning is the key to easy travels and the benefits will be worth it.

Special assistance information & advice for the UK’s main airports