16th May 2021

'My stomach is not calm until I see my wheelchair is safe'

Campaigners for better treatment of disabled people using air transport have said they will continue to fight for progress despite after what they deemed a disappointing meeting with EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas last week.

"Kallas was in a hurry. To me it seemed as if he was more focussed on dealing with budget issues than dealing with disability issues," Stig Langvad, of the European Disability Forum, told this website.

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  • Wheelchairs at airport. Sympathy levels in Europe are patchy (Photo: shugfy)

"I had hoped he would be more willing to deal with member states that are not implementing the rules and not just draw up guidelines for how to use the rules."

Langvad, a wheelchair user since a traffic accident in 1973, met with the commissioner in order to try and raise awareness about the patchy implementation of EU rules designed to ease air travel for people with reduced mobility.

Travelling in and out of his native Denmark around 20 times a year, Langvad says that the biggest problems he encounters is lack of training by staff and cavalier treatment of both him and his wheelchair.

"I have to book at least 48 hours in advance. Even if I do that, I can arrive like I did yesterday to Brussels and I can sit in the plane for 45 minutes without being able to get out because I have to have assistance."

He says he cannot rest easy until he is sure his wheelchair, worth €30,000 and weighing over 160 kilos, has also arrived without damage. As it is insured as a piece of luggage, only damages worth up to €1,000 are covered.

"My stomach is not calm until I see that my wheelchair is safe. Last year they dropped my wheelchair. The cost to repair it was €5,000. I am lucky that in Denmark the disability cover pays. But it is wrong to put the burden on the taxpayers and not on the airline companies."

He highlights Copenhagen, Schiphol and Frankfurt as airports that have well-trained staff.

"Those who take it seriously are the good guys. But no one knows who the good guys are because no one is looking into it and seeing how they are doing it."

Kallas' office denies not being committed to the issue. A spokesperson noted that they are "in a hurry" to draw up guidelines for passengers with reduced mobility ahead of the London Olympics next year.

A 2006 EU law requires airports and airlines to take passengers with reduced mobility onboard. But a spring assessment found many incidences of lax compliance with the law.

"Disabled people and people with reduced mobility continue to come across many problems when travelling by air," said Kallas' spokesperson. The official cited "unjustified refusals or restrictions of reservations or boarding based on unclear safety reasons" and "inconsistencies in the treatment of passengers who need medical oxygen onboard."

Airlines are facing a series of lawsuits over the way they have handled disabled travellers in Europe.

One case involves the UN's disability representative, who was prevented from boarding a Swiss International Airlines flight in April.

A British mother is also looking into legal action against EasyJet, which recently refused to fly her son because his wheelchair could not be taken apart. Ryanair lost a lawsuit in Britain earlier this year after a wheelchair bound woman was stranded on the runway when an ambulance needed to lift her to the aircraft did not turn up. The court found that airline employees gave no help.

Langvad says he will keep campaigning on the issue for the European Disability Forum, which represents around 80 million Europeans.

He points out that aviation is not the only sector with fuzzy rules when it comes to disabled people.

"I want the commission to look into the consequences of having passenger rights with very different geographical scope," he said. "You have regulations on standards for accessibility in city buses. But buses that cross borders are not dealt with the same way. If you want to go by bus between two cities within a country, they don't need to be accessible."

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