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Accessible travel: what you need to know about special assistance at airports

Few of us relish the airport and in-flight experience, but for travellers with disabilities, it can be considerably more daunting. That’s where special assistance comes in — but what should those using the service in the EU for the first time expect?

By David Whitley
Published 23 Aug 2019, 15:28 BST, Updated 23 Jul 2021, 11:59 BST

What is special assistance?

Essentially, it’s about getting anyone who needs help through the airport, onto the plane, and safely through the airport at the other end. By law, all airlines and airports in the EU have to offer this service free of charge. In practice, many airlines and airports around the globe will too. The problem is that what this entails often differs from airline to airline and airport to airport.

Who’s eligible?

In the EU, there are no set rules — the principle being that any passenger with a disability or reduced mobility who feels in need of help shouldn’t be obliged to pass a qualification threshold to get it. It’s not just for those who usually use a wheelchair, or have a Blue Badge. If you’ve an injury or illness that, for example, makes it difficult to stand for a long time in a queue or walk, you can request special assistance. But you do have to request it — and preferably at least 48 hours in advance.

How do you request it?

Some standardisation really wouldn’t go amiss here, but alas, it’s slightly different with every airline. For many, it can be done online during the booking process — British Airways, for example, offers three options based on the level of assistance required. Otherwise, it needs to be done over the phone. And, it’s worth double checking by phone 48 hours beforehand.

What happens when I get to the airport?

On arrival (either in the car park, drop-off bay or train station), there should be a prominently positioned button, allowing you to call for assistance, which should arrive promptly. Depending on what level you booked, someone will be available to take you through check-in and security, to the aircraft door (or seat, if needed) with a wheelchair or buggy. The same applies at the other end.

If travelling with your own wheelchair, most of the time, you’ll be able to stay in it until the aircraft door, where it’ll be taken away and stored in the hold, then brought back to the door at the end of the flight. In other airports, you’ll have to check the chair in, then be taken through the airport in an airport chair. Special conditions apply for battery-operated chairs, which airline websites usually spell out.

And in-flight?

Some airlines — again, such as British Airways — offer in-flight chairs for moving around and going to the toilet. Crew will also generally assist with stowing hand luggage. Special assistance passengers are usually first to board and last to get off.

Don’t expect privileges on seat choice, though. In practice, special assistance passengers are usually placed close to an emergency exit, although not in an emergency exit row. But there’s no law saying special assistance passengers have to be reserved more spacious seats near the front. Again, it varies by airline, so ask for specifics when booking.
For information on rights:

Going it alone

Special assistance extends to certain help on board the plane, but for the safety of other passengers, crew can’t aid in all instances. Most airlines will insist you must be travelling with an assistant if you need help with the following:

Moving around: This includes getting in and out of your seat (including into the wheelchair provided to get you to the toilet)

Safety: Unfastening your seatbelt and reaching an emergency exit on your own

Communicating: Understanding safety procedures from the crew

Emergencies: Reaching for and fitting a life jacket

Oxygen masks: Finding and applying masks in case of a loss of pressure

Personal care: For example, taking medication and eating

Assistance dogs: Attending to the needs of any special canine companions, which will be allowed on board by prior arrangement

Published in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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