Freedom to Travel

by Rodolfo Cattani

Airports, airline companies and service agencies cannot discriminate against persons with disabilities.
Mandatory positive actions for equal opportunity.

Refusal of acceptance at the check-in or access on board because of a disability; no or insufficient assistance in the airport or on board; request for payment for assistance; degrading treatment; mobility aids damaged or not refunded; air terminals without audio information; lack of information material in alternative formats; inaccessible Web sites; scarce or no preparation of staff, or impoliteness during security controls; discrimination on board of airplanes.
These are the most frequent complaints from travellers with disabilities on air routes in Europe. The increasing competition following the opening of the market to ever new airline companies, more or less aggressive, has provided certain advantages, like reduced fares, but more often than not it resulted in less quality of services and often more direct or indirect discrimination towards persons with disabilities. There has even been the introduction of "fees" which arbitrarily limit the number of persons with disabilities allowed to travel on the same airplane. Some companies require from persons with disabilities payment for assistance services they receive.
This does not mean that there is no correct or virtuous behaviour (good service, good treatment, equal treatment with other passengers, respect for the dignity of passengers with disabilities during assistance), but all this has been done thanks to the good will of airport services and airline companies.
But there now is, at the European level, a precise regulation that all State Members must respect. In the month of July 2008, will come into full force the regulation passed by the European Union to ensure the rights of passengers with reduced mobility (the so-called PRM) and of persons with disabilities in the air transportation field.
With much difficulty, because of the reluctance from the entrepreneurial lobby, organizations representing persons with disabilities and consumers have succeeded in gaining a set of rules that protect the rights of travellers with specific requirements.
In 2004, a public regulation had sanctioned the rights of passengers, establishing measures of guarantee and compensation in case of inefficiency, such as delays or cancellations of flights not due by force majeure, or in cases where the airplane company had overbooked seats. In such circumstances, plane tickets were reimbursed, or money compensations were provided or free hotel rooms. To persons with disabilities and their assistants priority was given or rebooking on another flight. Such regulation set equal rights for all travellers, but did not take into account the specific requirements of certain type of passengers among which are persons with disabilities.
So, in 2005, the European Commission presented a regulations proposal on the rights
of persons with reduced mobility and with disabilities in the air transportation field.

Picture of a sign indicating an area accessible to persons with disabilities and blind people

Picture of a button with Braille inscription

This was the first proposal for a specific legislation relating to disability at the European level, applicable directly to airports and airlines. This regulation was approved by the European Council of Ministers in June 2006.
This set some basic principles among which:
- assistance should be financed in such a way as to spread the burden equitably over all passengers;
- persons with disabilities and persons with reduced mobility should not be refused transport on the grounds of their disability or lack of mobility;
- assistance to meet their particular needs should be provided at the airport as well as on-board aircraft, and until the exit of the airport of destination without additional charge;
- assistance services are primordial in airports and these have to provide such services to all companies stoping over;
- staff providing assistance to disabled travellers should have regard to a code of good conduct and be prepared to respond to their requirements;
- standards and regulations for the quality of assistance have to be defined by law;
- the possibility to present claims to competent organizations has to be guaranteed and established at the national level;
- airlines are responsible for the assistance they offer on board;
- airline companies can refuse transport only for safety reasons prescribed by law, possibly at the European level, and justified, providing the interested passenger with the complete information. Moreover, in the evaluation of security situations, the airlines' internal regulations do not prevail.
From what is written above, it seems clear that all persons who have a physical, sensory, intellectual or motor disability, who is older or requiring special attention, have the right to the adaptation of services provided to all passengers according to their needs. In fact, the regulation will ensure disabled travellers

the possibility to travel in conditions that are as similar as possible as those of other passengers, during all phases of the air travel and carring all necessary aids in order to overcome the disability. In cases such special aids are damaged or lost, compensation is guaranteed.
Within this positive framework, there are unfortunately two wrong notes that could have and should have been avoided. From one side, airline companies have an unjustified discretion, where on the grounds of security, they can request that a person with disabilities be accompanied and, if it is not the case, refuse to accept that person. On the other side, it was established that a passenger needing assistance has to notify the airline 48 hours before the purchase of the ticket. In the first case, it would have been better to let the passenger decide whether or not he or she wants to be accompanied, while it is understood that sometimes the accompanying person may be essential even in the interest of the disabled person. In the second case, it was made clear that even if the 48-hour limit is not respected, the airport organization has to carry out every reasonable effort to provide assistance to the disabled passenger. We have however reasons to believe that such cases are highly infrequent.
As mentioned above, the provision will come into force on July 7, 2008, but right from July 7, 2007, airline companies will not be able to refuse on board disabled people. The European Disability Forum was entrusted by ECAC (European Conference on Civil Aviation) to develop guidelines informing airport and airline staff on the special and different needs of persons with disabilities, and to make suggestions for the training of such personnel.
Finally, the regulation will provide the obligation to consult organizations representing persons with disabilities and to include them in committees where consumers have to be represented in airports.
These organizations will have to be consulted also on the development of quality standards for the services provided.
It seems particulary important that the regulation should not be ratified by the State Members, but that it will come automatically into force. The States will have to establish an organization responsible for the implementation of the regulation, set sanctions when it is not respected, and determine precise procedures for the management of claims of which users will have to be adequately informed.

Picture of a hall in a European airport

Picture of an airplane landing