A new European regulation on air travel (EC 1107/2006) came into force on 26 July this year. It widens the rights available to disabled persons and those with reduced mobility, and it applies to all parties involved in the travel process. This includes tour operators, agents, airports and airlines. Its purpose is to give disabled and reduced mobility travellers the same access to the standards and services as other passengers enjoy and it draws upon a market worth £80bn.
The regulation is directly applicable in the United Kingdom and therefore takes precedence over the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA). The DDA applies only to disabled people and covers the booking process and airport accessibility. The new regulation has a wider application in that it applies not only to disabled persons but also to those with reduced mobility. Furthermore, it extends beyond booking and airport accessibility issues, to include procedures affecting arrival at the airport, checking in, moving around the airport, boarding the flight, on-board accessibility and leaving the plane.
Article 2(a) of the regulation defines a disabled person or person with reduced mobility as someone whose mobility, when using transport is reduced due to:
- any physical disability (sensory or locomotor, permanent or temporary),or
- intellectual disability or impairment, or
- any other cause of disability, or
and whose situation needs appropriate attention and the adaptation to his (or her) particular needs of the service made available to all passengers.
It is important to note that a disabled person or someone with reduced mobility need not be permanently so affected. Moreover, it is not necessary for such a person to prove their disabled or reduced mobility status at any time, except where fraud is suspected. Where there is a suspicion of fraud, it would be reasonable to ask for a letter from a general practitioner confirming the passenger’s disability or impaired mobility.
The new rights for disabled and reduced mobility passengers have been introduced in two main stages. On 26 July 2007, stage one was introduced. This made it illegal for airlines, travel agents or tour operators to refuse a booking on the grounds of disability or to refuse to board a disabled person who has a valid ticket and reservation, except for safety reasons.
Stage two came into force on 26 July 2008 and means that airports will have to provide services that enable disabled passengers to board, disembark and transit between flights. These rights, which include a right to assistance once on the plane, also apply to people with reduced mobility – for instance, someone with a broken leg. It should be noted that airports may be able to recoup the costs of providing such assistance – and/or making the airport accessible – from the airlines.
Complaints and breaches
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is responsible for promoting the regulation and is also empowered to receive complaints from anyone who feels there has been a breach of the law. The EHRC will handle and monitor the complaints, offering conciliation as well as supporting people to take civil action where necessary. If appropriate, the EHRC has jurisdiction to refer any UK matter to the Civil Aviation Authority, which can prosecute. If an airline, airport operator, travel agent or travel operator is found to have breached the regulation, they can face an unlimited fine.
Need to give notice
Disabled people and those with reduced mobility who want to rely on the rights available under Regulation 1107/2006 are expected to give at least 48 hours notice of their requirement for help. Failure to do so will mean no guarantee of help during the travelling process, although agents, tour operators, airports and airlines must make all reasonable efforts to provide the required assistance if possible.
Review and training
All the parties covered by the new rules will be expected to review their current policies, procedures and practices to ensure they meet the requirements of the new regulation.
Training of employees is an essential factor in this review and should be carried out with the aid of organisations of disabled people where possible. It should be noted that training should be given to all parties involved in the travel process and not just to those having face-to-face contact with the disabled or those with reduced mobility. For example, airport designers will have to be trained in the needs of disabled people and those with reduced mobility. This indicates how deep the review process should go.
A duty to inquire
Although the disabled and those with reduced mobility are expected to give notice of their assistance requirements, it is also necessary for agents, operators and carriers actively to inquire during the booking transaction stage:
- whether there will be anyone in the travelling party who is likely to require assistance; and
- what form that assistance may take.
An air carrier’s liability may be limited when it comes to disabled people and those with reduced mobility. It is therefore important for disabled people and those with reduced mobility to be advised about these liability limits so that they can obtain their own appropriate insurance.
The Data Protection Act 1984 must be complied with at all stages. Explicit consent is required from a passenger where (for the purpose of providing the requested assistance) it is considered necessary to capture sensitive personal data regarding physical or mental health, and/or (in the case of frequent travellers) storing that data for future use.
As explained earlier, it is now illegal for tour operators, travel agents and airlines to refuse a booking on the grounds of disability (see article 3 of Regulation 1107/2006).
However, aviation safety and security rules remain paramount and it may sometimes be impractical for such companies to accept such a booking. In such a case, it will be acceptable for a company to refuse a booking in order to meet safety requirements. This could cover a number of eventualities but one example would be where a disabled person requires a wheelchair and necessary equipment on board a flight, and there is no feasible way of security checking such equipment.
When a booking request has been refused, the company will be expected to give reasons for their refusal, in writing, within five working days of the request. The company should make reasonable efforts to propose an alternative.
The new rules, which are designed to give disabled passengers a better journey, have so far encompassed two stages. These have widened the actual rights available to disabled persons and those with reduced mobility. They have also extended the obligations of agents, tour operators, airports and airlines.