Transport CommitteeWritten evidence from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) (DAT 26)

Introduction

1. The CAA welcomes the Transport Committee’s Inquiry as an opportunity to inform the Committee members of the effectiveness of legislation protecting the rights of disabled air passengers and to give an insight into the experiences of the UK’s disabled air passengers in general.

Regulation EC 1107/2006

2. In 2008, European legislation—Regulation (EC) 1107/2006 (PRM Regulation)—came into force in full, providing legal rights for disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility (PRMs) to access air travel. The Regulation covers all EU airports and flights on all airlines from these airports. It also covers flights from a third country to an EU airport if the carrier is registered in an EU country.

3. The Regulation represented a considerable change in the provision of assistance for PRMs. It made it an offence to deny someone access to a flight on the grounds of a disability or impairment, except where there are specific safety restrictions. It also obliged industry to provide appropriate assistance throughout the journey at no additional cost to the passenger.

4. The Regulation is wide ranging, covering the passenger journey from a designated arrival point to a designated departure point at the airport (car park, train station etc.). It specifically requires:

5. Non-discrimination—the Regulation imposes obligations on airlines, travel agents and tour operators not to refuse a reservation or boarding on the grounds of disability, except where carriage is unsafe or where carriage is physically impossible (ie the size of the aircraft or its doors, makes the embarkation or carriage of the PRM physically impossible).

6. Sharing passenger information (pre-notification)—PRMs should request assistance at least 48 hours before travel either with the airline directly or through a travel agent. This request is then passed to the airline and airport. Even if the request from the passenger is made within 48 hours of travel or if no request is made the airline and airport must still do all they reasonably can to provide assistance.

7. Assistance provided by airports—airports must provide assistance for PRMs, at no extra cost, to ensure they are able to take their flight. If required, the assistance must be available throughout their entire airport experience, from arrival at a designated point at the airport (car park, train station etc) to the gate (generally via a wheelchair or electric buggy), boarding the aircraft, stowing hand luggage, to disembarking from the aircraft and being transported to the designated point at their destination airport.

8. Service quality standards—airports must set service quality standards in consultation with airport users and organisations representing PRMs. Airports used by more than150,000 passengers a year must publish their service standards.

9. Assistance provided by airlines—airlines must provide assistance without any additional charge. This includes the carriage of assistance dogs, medical equipment and up to two pieces of mobility equipment, as well as assistance in getting to the toilet and reasonable adjustments for seating.

Industry guidance and best practice

10. The Department for Transport’s Code of Practice on access to air travel for disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility was first issued in March 2003. It is aimed at all those involved in air travel including travel agents, tour operators, UK airlines, UK airports, ground handling companies and retailers. The Code is guidance material and is not legally binding. It sets out the requirements of the PRM Regulation and Equality Act, in addition to recommend best practice.

11. There is also international guidance and best practice in the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s Manual on access to air transport by persons with disabilities and the European Civil Aviation Conference’s Document 30 section 5 Facilitation of the transport of persons with reduced mobility. These documents are designed to achieve consistency in policy and in the application of measures among international and European countries. The European Commission has also produced Interpretative Guidelines on the PRM Regulation.

CAA’s role

12. In the UK, the CAA is the National Enforcement Body for the PRM Regulation. The Regulation is enforced in the UK under the Civil Aviation (Access to Air Travel for Disabled Persons and Persons with Reduced Mobility) Regulations. Under the Statutory Instrument, the CAA is limited to criminal powers for enforcement of the Regulation. However, further action is currently being considered by the DfT in regards to providing us with civil sanction enforcement powers. This would enable us to secure changes in companies’ policies and procedures rather than just impose penalties for past offences. We believe that criminal powers do not give us sufficient flexibility to enforce the Regulation because they are generally not proportionate to the type of offences we see committed. We therefore currently rely to a large extent on informal action and persuasion to ensure compliance with the Regulation and to bring about changes to industry practices that benefit PRM passengers in general.

13. We are also the designated complaints handler for the PRM Regulation for England, Wales and Scotland, having taken over the role from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in October 2012. The General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland handles complaints from passengers in Northern Ireland. We offer advice through our telephone helpline and through information on the CAA website. We also take up complaints with airlines and airports on behalf of PRMs who are not able to gain a satisfactory resolution themselves. Under a Europe wide agreement, the CAA handles complaints from PRMs departing from all UK airports and from those arriving at UK airports (if the flight is from a country outside the EU and the carrier is EU registered).

14. In addition, we also offer advice and take up complaints on all other issues relating to disabled air passengers. This can include in relation to the Equality Act (the UK Equality Act does not apply on board aircraft but does apply to air travel in relation to the use of booking services and airport facilities.

Effectiveness of legislation relating to transport for disabled people: is it working? Is it sufficiently comprehensive? How effectively is it enforced?

15. In 2010 the consultants Steer, Davis, Gleave carried out an Evaluation of the PRM Regulation1 across all EU Member States for the European Commission. This wide ranging review of the effectiveness of the Regulation concluded that most airports and airlines had implemented the requirements of the Regulation. However, the report stated that there was a significant variation in the quality of service provided by airports to PRMs and in the policies of airlines and airports.

16. The CAA’s experience of the Regulation is similar to those of the authors of the report. We recognise the significant steps the industry has made to bring itself into compliance but also that there remain inconsistencies in the quality of service provided by different businesses. We also note that there remains a degree of non-compliance from industry. These include:

Low pre-notification levels with some airlines (often caused by systems and processes which make it difficult for PRM to pre-notify).

Airlines’ seat allocation processes which leave PRMs seated in inappropriate seats.

Inconsistent service quality coverage at airports on all parts of the passengers’ journey (eg arrival points to check-in on departure, and on arrival from baggage reclaim to car park).

Inconsistency in application of airline policies on the circumstances in which airlines might refuse carriage for a PRM on safety grounds (CAA Document FODCOM 49/08 sets out guidance on this). 

Restrictions on carriage of mobility equipment.

17. In carrying out our consumer policy remit, we must balance this with the CAA’s obligations as a safety regulator. Much of our consumer policy work in relation to PRMs involves significant interaction between our consumer and safety policy. One area is in relation to the carriage of electric mobility aids. The power circuits of electric mobility aids must be inhibited prior to loading and the devices must be protected from damage on board the aircraft, as such equipment poses a potential fire risk during flight. Complying with these safety requirements might restrict the numbers of PRMs that can be carried and ultimately restrict access to PRMs. In addition, under the PRM Regulation, airports within the EU are responsible for providing assistance to ensure that any electric mobility aid belonging to a PRM is made safe for carriage, whilst outside of the EU, the airline is typically responsible for this. Involving the airport in the preparation of electric mobility aids for carriage makes the process more complex as airlines have to establish separate processes for within the EU and everywhere else. We also understand from UK airlines that very few airports in mainland Europe have identified to them what organisation they have assigned the task of making electric mobility aids safe for carriage.

18. Nevertheless, the CAA is currently undertaking a significant amount of work to improve industry compliance and iron out the inconsistencies in the assistance provided by different airports and airlines. It has already had some notable successes. The work includes:

work on improving pre-notification levels:

in conjunction with ABTA, we have published guidance for industry on pre-notification;

we have encouraged UK airports to produce wallet-sized cards setting out the importance of pre-notification to be handed out to PRM passengers at special assistance desks; and

we have asked airport operators to provide us with regular data on pre-notification levels by airline, allowing us to target under performers.

We have carried out work, in co-operation with Animal Health and DEFRA, to ensure all UK airports and airlines flying to and from the UK accept assistance dogs.

In relation to the seating policies of carriers for PRMs, we are currently working with a number of carriers to ensure that their policies do not restrict access to PRMs and that PRMs do not pay extra for seats appropriate for their needs.

We have set up a “Disability Working Group” to share complaints data with disability groups and disabled individuals. The first meeting of the Group is expected to take place in the first half of this year. In addition, we attend a number of groups seeking to improve access to tourism for disabled people and we have strong links with charities, groups representing the disabled and disabled individuals.

The bringing together of complaints handling and enforcement has provided us with an opportunity to integrate further our complaint handling with the CAA’s enforcement of legislation that protects disabled passengers, so as to make the best use in our policy and enforcement work of the valuable information generated by complaints casework.

We are enhancing the general information and advice to PRMs available on our website.

We are devising and implementing a more structured approach to audits and inspection of airports and airlines. We are drawing up a compliance questionnaire on the PRM Regulation to be completed by major airlines flying to the UK and all UK airports. The questionnaire will be supplemented by targeted onsite inspections of services.

We are working with industry to put in processes to ensure that passengers’ are not denied boarding because of lack of space to carry mobility equipment and that the equipment is transported safely and securely.

We are about to undertake a project surveying the published quality standards at UK airports, in order to determine if all airports produce them; whether they are accessible to the public; and whether they are drawn up in co-operation with disability groups.

Case studies

19. A number of wheelchair users had complained to us that they had been refused travel by one particular airline despite travelling with the airline on many occasions previously. They had been refused because they were not accompanied by an able bodied passenger and staff did not believe they would be able to evacuate in any emergency. Following our intervention, the airline agreed that the passengers should not have been denied boarding. We worked with the airline to redraft their advice to crew members (the “Notice to Crew”) in relation to PRMs so as to give their staff better information on when to, and when not to, deny boarding to wheelchair users.

20. We received a number of reports from passengers and from the airport operator itself that large numbers of wheelchairs at Heathrow were not being returned to their owners at the aircraft door by airline ground staff as they disembarked the aircraft on arrival and were instead being sent to the baggage reclaim. We asked Heathrow Airport Limited to monitor performance of repeat offenders and write to these airlines, reminding them of their obligations to repatriate passengers’ own wheelchairs at the aircraft door on arrival wherever possible. Recent data shows that repatriation levels across a number of airlines at Heathrow have improved significantly in the last six months.

21. We also undertake work on PRM issues additional to our remit as enforcer of the PRM Regulation. For example, in relation to our safety remit, we have;

helped in the development of the introduction and approval of the MERU TravelChair, a specialist seat for children that fits into a normal aircraft seat;

carried out trials with Guide Dogs for the Blind to ascertain space needed for a guide/assistance dog on board the aircraft and the best method of evacuation for a passenger travelling with a guide/assistance dog;

worked with airlines and implemented an Exemption to ensure comfortable, but safe carriage of disabled children with regard to supplementary means of safety restraint for PRMs when the aircraft seatbelt alone is insufficient or inadequate restraint; and

published Safety Notice 2012/003 which explains the flight safety responsibilities of airports and airlines concerning the preparation and loading of electric mobility aids, together with a video that runs through each step of the process.

The accessibility of information: including the provision of information about routes, connections, timetables, delays and service alterations, and fares

22. The PRM Regulation obliges airlines and airports to communicate in accessible formats all essential information to take a flight. It also obliges airports to make arrangements necessary to enable PRMs to communicate their arrival at an airport and request assistance. Further, the DfT Code of Practice sets out obligations under the PRM Regulation and the Equality Act, in addition to recommended best practice.

23. The EHRC and the CAA have received some complaints about accessibility to information, but not in high numbers, suggesting it is not a particular problem for PRMs. We have also carried out a survey of the information for PRMs provided on a number of airline and airport websites and found that in general information was comprehensive and was easily accessible from the home pages.

24. However there is still scope to improve the consistency of quality of information on PRM services on websites and signage at airports. We are therefore working closely with airlines and airports on helping them to better signpost their services and the assistance that is available to PRMs and also increase the information they provide advising PRMs of their rights under EU law. We are also working with airlines to help make booking and check-in systems more accessible and easier to use for PRMs, particularly in relation to passing information to the airline on the type of assistance required.

25. We expect the CAA PRMs compliance questionnaire to provide us with better information in the future on the accessibility of airline and airport websites. It will include a number of questions on accessibility of information during the booking process and when requesting assistance. It will also include questions on accessibility of general information on the services onboard aircraft and at airports, and on the distances between the different areas of a terminal building and the quality of overall service provision. We are also considering publishing information for comparative purposes on the facilities and services available to PRM passengers under our new Information powers that have been granted to the CAA as part of the Civil Aviation Act 2012.

The provision of assistance by public transport staff and staff awareness of the needs of people with different disabilities

26. The PRM Regulation includes provisions on training of staff. It obliges airlines and airports to ensure that staff are trained in how to meet the needs of the disabled and have general disability awareness training. The PRM Regulation refers to the European Civil Aviation Conference Document 30 which provides detailed guidance for industry on staff training for handling PRMs.

27. The EHRC and the CAA have received some reports from individuals and disabled groups of inappropriate and insensitive handling of disabled passengers, particularly in relation to security searches at airports; but not in significant numbers, which suggests that there are not systemic problems in this area. Nevertheless we have sought assurances from airport operators and airlines that they are meeting their training obligations. On the occasions we have taken up issues we have had a positive response from the service provider.

What can be learnt from transport provision during the Paralympics and how can we build on its successes?

28. In practical terms, the CAA’s view is that the industry can learn much from, and build upon, the numerous examples of good practice at UK airports over the Games period. We observed firsthand how co-operation between airport operators, airlines and PRM service providers ensured a high quality service to the Games family. Examples of good practice include:

high numbers of wheelchairs being spread evenly over short haul flights operating with smaller aircraft, greatly reducing any potential for delays;

aircraft carrying Paralympic athletes were routinely allocated to the most suitable gates at Heathrow—generally those close to the accreditation area and with lifts to carry wheelchairs; and

the significant amount of time and effort dedicated by Omniserv, the PRM handlers at Heathrow, to training its staff to deal with the arrival and departure of unusually high numbers of disabled passengers and wheelchairs on flights.

29. In relation to the experience of PRMs, we shall continue our engagement with airlines and airports to ensure that these best practices are put into practice when appropriate and that airlines and airports continue to work together to provide a seamless and superior service to PRMs.

January 2013

1 http://ec.europa.eu/transport/facts-fundings/evaluations/doc/2010_reg_1107_2006.pdf

Prepared 13th September 2013