London Heathrow Airport has been struggling with ground handling over the summer months as demand for travel increases post-Covid. It recently imposed a cap on departing passengers of 100,000 a day. Therefore 4000 more passengers were expecting to depart per day than Heathrow felt they could safely handle.
The request was not well received by airlines, many of whom already had to cancel multiple flights due to their own staff shortages. In a media statement, Emirates initially very publicly rebelled against the cap, saying they had no intention of cancelling flights. However, in a rather strange twist, they backed down with another statement saying they would work with Heathrow to adjust numbers just a few days later. Since then, Emirates has added an extra flight at Gatwick instead.
One of the areas Heathrow is struggling is with passenger assistance such as those needing wheelchairs. In an interview with Nick Ferrari for LBC radio, Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye defended the airport’s position. LBC host Nick Ferrari gave an example of the challenges facing wheelchair users at Heathrow’s Terminal 3: “Last week 20 wheelchair passengers waited in their allocated area for someone to take them through immigration. There was no air conditioning; these people sitting there knowing it was an absolute disgrace.”
One passenger who experienced such issues at Heathrow recently is accessible travel writer John Morris of Wheelchair Travel. John was left waiting on the airbridge late at night for an aisle chair long after all the other passengers had boarded his British Airways flight.
John explains, “With increased staffing pressures on airport and airline assistance contractors, it’s been a rough summer for disabled people traveling by air. Wait times for assistance have routinely stretched to an hour or more, delaying boarding and deplaning for customers who rely on wheelchair assistance. These delays often compound, leading to flights being behind schedule, which negatively affects all passengers, disabled or not.”
Heathrow chief John Holland-Kaye justified the delays by stating Heathrow had the same number of wheelchair assistance personnel as pre-Covid. However, there has been a surge in demand for passenger assistance this year which Holland-Kaye believes is a result of people trying to beat the queues by requesting assistance. Traditionally wheelchair users are moved to the front of the line for security, meaning less waiting time in the current unacceptably lengthy queues. The airport boss believes that other travellers that do not require assistance are now requesting it due to the long line at the airport to try to get fast-tracked.
Mr Holland-Kaye blamed the surge in demand on a Tik Tok hack where a non-disabled man pretended to be injured to request a wheelchair and skip the queues. John told LBC, “For passengers requiring wheelchair support, we have more demand than we had before the pandemic. Why is that happening? Some of this is because people are using the wheelchair support to try to get fast-track through the airport. That is absolutely the wrong thing to be doing.”
He continued,”If you go on TikTok, you’ll see that that is one of the travel hacks that people are recommending. Please don’t do that.” John Morris of Wheelchair Travel commented, “The so-called travel hack described on TikTok is troubling, as it leaves disabled passengers without the critical services they need for equal access to air travel.”
Of course, it could be pointed out that Heathrow’s lack of staff in other areas causing lengthy security queues could also be blamed for the trend, no matter how morally wrong it may be.