Assistance for blind passengers at Heathrow Airport: will it improve?

If you follow me on Twitter (@kirankaja12), you may have noticed a bunch of tweets from me in the past few weeks about the rather appalling level of assistance provided by Heathrow Airport to blind passengers. Sorry for flooding your timelines! According to EC Regulation 1107/2006, it is now the responsibility of the airport to provide any special assistance required by so called “Person with Reduced Mobility” or “PRM” passengers. This rather all-encompassing category of passengers may include persons with disabilities such as blind and partially sighted people, passengers who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, wheelchair users as well as elderly people who may have problems walking long distances or cannot manage steps. The regulation of course applies to airports within the European Union. Outside the EU, the responsibility to provide assistance usually lies with the airline. Almost all airports in the EU outsource the special assistance activity to a third-party contractor. In case of Heathrow Airport, this is a company called Omniserv.

So what on earth is the problem?

I use Heathrow Airport quite a bit because this is by far the most convenient airport for me. It is also the home of British Airways which in my opinion is the best airline for blind passengers primarily because BA cabin crew is well trained to assist passengers with visual difficulties. I mostly travel for work reasons with occasional leisure travel.

Over the past year or so, I have noticed that the assistance levels at Heathrow Airport have gone downhill. The issues I face on a regular basis include:

  • · No assistance provided when my flight arrives into Heathrow in spite of booking assistance in advance with the airline. In a number of instances, there was no one from Omniserv to help me off the plane and guide me out of the terminal building. On a number of occasions, the cabin crew kindly walked me out even though this is not their responsibility. On other occasions, I had to wait a long time after everyone disembarked for someone to pick me up. a couple of times, I was left in a rather quiet part of the terminal building and was asked to wait for assistance with no information as to when they will be picking me up or no easy way to contact a member of staff.
  • · Heathrow Airport advises passengers requiring assistance to arrive at least two hours before the flight departure. I diligently follow this but they would then make me wait for a long time before helping me through security and taking me to the departure gate. On occasion, I had to wait for up to 50 minutes to be helped inside. Again, they would not provide any update as to what is causing the delay or when they are likely to come assist me in, etc. their service level agreement states that 97% of passengers who have pre-booked assistance will be helped within 10 minutes and 99% within 17 minutes. Just like any other passenger, I may want to have a coffee or a meal before I get on a long flight. But if they take a long time to help me through security, there won’t be any time left for me to do this.
  • · While most Omniserv staff are very helpful and provide a good level of service, I have seen enough instances of unprofessional and inappropriate behavior. They would loudly argue with each other right in front of passengers about whose responsibility it is to help someone, fail to communicate important information such as flight delays, refuse to escort blind passengers to a coffee shop or other retail establishment within the airport when they are clearly required to do so, etc.
  • · Of course there is that old bugbear of insisting that blind passengers sit on a wheelchair when they are able to walk just fine. I flatly refuse. There is absolutely no reason why blind people need to sit on a wheelchair unless they specifically wish to do so. Admittedly, this hasn’t happened to me at Heathrow of late. They offer a wheelchair but they don’t insist too hard when I politely refuse it.

So what did I do?

In addition to ranting about it on Twitter?

I am aware that Heathrow is a huge airport with high passenger volumes and there will be times when the resources are stretched thin. I expect, and am happy to put up with reasonable delays. However, when they consistently fail to show up to escort people off an arriving plane in spite of pre-booking assistance, I thought it was time to start complaining.

In September 2012, when no assistance was provided to me when arriving into Heathrow from Glasgow, I first wrote to British Airways explaining what happened and asking why no assistance was provided. They got back to me saying that under EU regulation, it is not their responsibility anymore and that I should write to Heathrow Airport directly. So I sent a strongly worded feedback to Heathrow Airport via their website. I didn’t receive any reply initially and so I sent a second strongly worded feedback. I then received an apology from Omniserv customer services person. They gave me a vague reason about not having the correct information for my flight and informed me that they will improve their processes. However, the problem continued to persist. Meanwhile, I also started hearing about other blind people encountering similar problems. Omniserv again failed to assist me off a plane last month when I was coming back from a two and a half week work trip to the US. As usual, I booked assistance in advance and informed British Airways that I am blind. This information was passed on to Omniserv and Heathrow. In spite of all this, they not only failed to escort me off the plane but also failed to respond when they were told that a blind passenger was waiting to be helped. I had to find my way on my own within the terminal building until I luckily encountered an Omniserv employee who was just coming off a break. Once more, I sent a written complaint to both British Airways and Heathrow Airport with exact details of what happened and asking for a justification.

So why did Heathrow/Omniserv screw it up?

It is the stupid computer’s fault!

Without going into too much detail, Omniserv claims that I was not met at the plane because of a problem with their computer system. My booking apparently had two special assistance codes “blind” and “WCHR”. The latter is a code that denotes that I have no problems other than not being able to walk long distances. If a booking has more than one special code, the Omniserv system only retains one code and in my instance, it ignored the “blind”. Since they don’t necessarily have to assist every “WCHR” passenger in person, on this instance, they chose not to send a member of staff to the plane I was arriving on. I am rather puzzled by the fact that this glaring problem with the computer system has not been discovered in the two and a half years of Omniserv operations at Heathrow Airport.

Is Heathrow/Omniserv going to do anything about it?

Your guess is as good as mine!

After a number of email conversations and a couple of meetings with various people at Omniserv and Heathrow Airport, they now assure me that they will take a number of steps to improve the special assistance service at Heathrow Airport. I attended a focus group for blind users of Heathrow on Wednesday 4th April where I met other blind travelers who had similar experiences. Again without going into too much detail, here are some of the measures that Omniserv/Heathrow told us about that will hopefully lead to some improvements.

  • · Generating regular extra reports on their computer systems to troll through bookings with multiple assistance codes to identify blind passengers. This is to circumvent the current limitation with their computer system mentioned above. However, as I observed earlier, I am surprised that this issue has gone undetected for so long. They would surely be better off fixing the system so that it receives all codes and not just one.
  • · Identifying and retraining a core group of Omniserv staff who will primarily be assisting blind and partially sighted people. They feel that this is important because blind passengers constitute less than 1% of all special assistance requests at Heathrow. This means that most Omniserv staff members assist blind passengers only infrequently and therefore may not recall their training. Given the scale of special assistance operations at Heathrow, this may sound logical to Omniserv but we will need to see how this works in theory. What happens when no one from this core group of staff is on shift when a blind passenger is travelling through Heathrow? They should also be ensuring that staff is retrained in disability awareness on a regular basis.
  • · Working with airlines operating out of Heathrow to ensure that they correctly pass on special assistance requests to Omniserv. Considering the fact that passengers can book their journeys directly with airlines or through thousands of travel agents scattered all over the world, I am not entirely sure how successful this exercise will be. Omniserv should still be prepared for special assistance requests that haven’t been notified in advance.

While both Omniserv and Heathrow Airport seem to be genuinely interested in improving the service levels, it remains to be seen if there will be any real change in the next few months. More importantly, if they do manage to improve the service, they should ensure that that is maintained consistently.

Is there anything that blind people can do?

In addition to talking about it on Twitter that is

Definitely. There are a few things that we as blind passengers can do to help improve the situation.

Book assistance when possible

According to EC Regulation 1107/2006, you don’t really have to book assistance in advance. Even though they recommend booking assistance at least 48 hours in advance, the airport is required to make all “reasonable efforts” to assist you when you arrive at the airport prior notification. Do remember though that airports like Heathrow can get extremely busy at certain times and no one has unlimited resources. Providing an early notification helps the airport schedule their resources correctly. So if you are booking your ticket in advance, do make sure that you inform the airline or travel agent that you need to book assistance as well. You should also let them know the type of disability you have so that they can book the right type of assistance. Remember that they have this weird system of special assistance codes that may influence the type of assistance you may get.

I know that some of us don’t really want to book assistance because of a number of reasons. In fact, I always booked assistance in advance but I still ended up getting horrible service. So there is a tendency to not bother when you notice that the service is equally bad when you do book in advance.

However, there is no clear definition of what “reasonable effort” actually means. So an airport can claim but they could not accommodate you in spite of making all “reasonable efforts” if you don’t notify. Further, if you do get poor level of service, you are on a much firmer ground when complaining to the service provider if you have booked in advance.

Of course, there will always be instances where it isn’t possible to notify in advance. If you have to fly at short notice for whatever reason, most airports should generally accommodate you. Airline journeys, unlike train or bus journeys, tend to be booked well in advance. So I would urge you to take a few minutes to book assistance whenever possible.

A number of airlines let you book assistance online. This is typically done either at the time of the booking the ticket or can be done later via the airline website. in Europe, I was able to book assistance online with Finnair, Brussels Airlines and Airfrance KLM. Annoyingly, British Airways still requires you to call their customer care number to book special assistance. Wait times can sometimes be up to 20-25 minutes. I have been asking @British_Airways on Twitter to provide an online special assistance booking facility for a while now. If you think this would be useful, please tweet them and let them know.

I booked in advance but I still got a crappy service!

You don’t have to put up with it. Take a few minutes to complain to the airport that is at fault. Explain that in spite of requesting in advance, you weren’t given the assistance you required in a reasonable time. you can contact Heathrow Airport via their feedback form at http://www.heathrowairport.com/help/contact-us/feedback. Or, you can tweet them @HeathrowAirport. You can usually find contact details for other airports on their respective websites. You should also send in a complaint to the airline that you were flying with. Because it is the airport who is responsible for providing assistance, the airline will usually forward your complain to the relevant airport and forget about it. But at least it may add additional weight to your complaint to the airport.

It is important to provide feedback when things go wrong. Even if you travel only occasionally, there is absolutely no reason why you should put up with inferior service. But as long as we as customers don’t hold them accountable, airports and even airlines will make no efforts to mend their ways. Similarly, we as passengers do have to make an effort to provide positive feedback when someone provides a very good level of support.

When you are writing to an airport, provide as much detail as you can remember about the incident. For instance, It would be far better to tell them that you have waited 45 minutes before you were offered assistance (if that is the case) rather than just saying that there was a long delay. Do remember that you need to allow for a reasonable time before assistance can be provided. If I have booked assistance in advance, I typically allow for a 15 minute delay at large airports before I begin to get annoyed. I am not for a moment suggesting that we should all start keeping track of the time we had to wait for assistance. It is certainly not my favorite pastime while waiting to board a plane. But any substantial facts are helpful when complaining to an airport.

What did I miss?

Quite a bit I am sure!

Let me confess that I am not an expert in accessible travel or anything of that sort. I am not a legal expert either to fully understand EC Regulation 1107/2006. I just happen to be a blind guy who travels a fair bit and was unlucky to have had some rather unpleasant experiences particularly at Heathrow Airport.

I don’t know enough about all the challenges that people with other disabilities face while travelling by air especially wheelchair users like @Christiane whose inputs on Twitter are very appreciated.

So dear readers, if you happen to have any experiences of special assistance at Heathrow or other airports, please do share them via the comments form below. If you prefer, you can also talk to me on Twitter @kirankaja12 or email me on kirankaja12 at gmail dot com.

Happy travels and May you always get the assistance you need!

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2 Responses to “Assistance for blind passengers at Heathrow Airport: will it improve?”

  1. Katharine Rosenstiel (@fredngingermad) Says:

    I sincerely hope you get better assistance in the future. My two experiences with special assistance at LHR left a lot to be desired including almost missing the flight on the outbound, fortunately in my case it was a short term injury, i hope for your sake it improves in future

  2. Tim Holt Says:

    I as well have noticed the appalling decline in levels of assistance provided to people, particularly elderly, who need assistance when disembarking at Heathrow.

    I fully expect the typical anodyne statements from management that are typical of modern organisations with overpaid PR departments and underpaid staff – such as the company mission’s statement:

    “We are a ‘People Company’ and have always believed a satisfied customer is the result of well valued and rewarded members of staff.”
    - Ernest Patterson, Chairman, OmniServ Ltd

    On several occasions my 94 year old mother, who when arriving at Heathrow was only met after a 30 minute delay, was then shunted to a waiting area with 30 other passengers, where she would have had to wait another 45 minutes while the 3 or so staff actually workin,g shuffled mobility challenged passengers through immigration and customs.

    Fortunately, she can walk with difficulty, and managed to make her way, but I did find it quite disturbing to have her burst into tears when I met her.

    I will write to Heathrow, Omniserv, and my local MP, but I really do not expect any joy.

    Any suggestions?

    Tim Holt

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