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Traveling by plane for people with handicaps – handicapped traveling?

It’s fun to travel. For disabled people it’s also always a special challenge. Nevertheless, more and more people in this category dare the skies. The flight companies have also understood this and have ordered new, modern planes suitable for the disabled or have converted older planes to become disabled friendly.

A trend not to be ignored

Anyone who has been to the „International Trade Fair“ (ITB) in Berlin will have easily recognized the trend. There are travel agencies offering group holidays in Germany and all over Europe for people with handicaps and hotels specializing in this clientele.  However, not only the group holidays are up and coming. „Individual holidays for this target group is an ever-growing subject for us,“ commented Annika Werhle from the Spanish tourist board, speaking also for other state tourist boards.

Lufthansa has, for example, just commissioned new planes, type A350-900, for long distance air travel which can not only provide the ideal cabin pressure (comparable with the air pressure in the highlands) for people with heart and lung illnesses, but also provide an exemplary interior for disabled people. All the armrests in the aisle are folding, thus making them easy to use for the target group. Lufthansa subsidiary SWISS have fitted a spacious toilet for the disabled in their Boeing 777 which is completely disabled friendly.

Record commissions for medium haul aircraft

Gigantic commissions for medium haul aircraft were recorded at the Dubai Air Show, all of which provide new cabins suitable for the handicapped. The “ A320 neo-family“ from Airbus is the leader. „It is more than necessary. The smaller companies still use planes with old-fashioned technology and interiors, bad air- conditioning and seating which causes pain to some people. Today you must weigh up which company you want to fly with, and not only the price should be the decider, „says a branch insider, without mentioning the name of the company concerned. Lufthansa has already commissioned 9 planes, type A320neo, in this segment and more will follow. Older planes will be rebuilt, as has long been the case with Lufthansa subsidiary SWISS and Eurowings. Even the cut-price airline Easyjet has refurbished the planes in use or has ordered new planes fitting the changed requirements,  as the Britains would like to fill the actual gap following the Air Berlin bankruptcy. The east European cut-price airline WizzAir has also ordered 150 handicap-friendly A 320neos. All the new Airbus planes have at least one special wheelchair on board.

Service falters

What about the service at the airports and on the planes? „There are European guidelines and regulations which should be binding for all planes traveling in European airspace,“ confirmed Marie. Denninghaus from the European Disability Forum. Thus airports are required to offer assistance to a person with a disability and also make the check in, customs and hand luggage controls easier,  so that people with disabilities can board the plane first, without haste. The reality is different. The people concerned have reported that they were segregated and had to wait „painfully“ long until they were checked in and boarded last. Luggage containing medicaments and supportive equipment was left behind at the departure airport. Another person with walking difficulties had to wait more than 50 minutes until he was driven by caddie to the gate which was only a few metres away. The air company was „shocked“ and spoke of both incidents as isolated cases. „Such individual mistakes made by ground staff cannot be avoided in the busy season“ defended Lufthansa press spokeswoman Anja Lindenstein „such really isolated“ cases. But what is an isolated case and what is a grave error?

The EU Decree 1107/06 recommends an escort for a disabled person. Especially when booking online it’s often not possible to get seats together, so that meals etc can’t be passed along. The reason given for this is that the person in the next seat „tends“ to like taking over this task. Whether the already stressed handicapped person wants this does not interest anyone. „Embarrassment plays a large role because the other passengers see my handicap,“ believes one passenger.

The price structure for people with handicaps doesn’t conform to the EU rules issued as guidelines for  tranport of the disabled. These decrees that „an escort should travel free of charge or at a greatly reduced price (taxes and fees),“ reports Nicola John, the press speaker for the European Commission.  Guidelines are not, however, binding and so there are no standardized regulations. Only Turkish Airlines give a discount and insist that an escort flies, too. With Lufthansa and Eurowings the escort flies „free of charge“ on inland flights (excluding taxes and fees), but not on flights to other countries.  Easyjet and TUI , at least, wave booking charges on all flights.

The be all and end all: The preparation

Whoever, as a disabled person, dares to fly should take with them a list of their medication (including documentation). A list of all things to be done before, during and after the holiday should not be missing. Contact with the respective airline well beforehand is strongly recommended, so that it can be checked if the person is fit to fly (MEDIF, FREMEC papers and the GP’s report) and also if the escort has to be taken into consideration. During this phone call, wheelchair users should make sure that a caddie or wheelchair will always be available. The best insurance is caution.

Then nothing more should get in the way of a relaxing flight.

Contributed by Berhard Veith

Photos: Pascal Schöpflin