My Lords, we want to see an improvement in service for all passengers requiring assistance when travelling through our airports. We have seen progress in recent years through the introduction of the CAA annual reporting, but there is certainly more we can do in this area. Through the ongoing work on our aviation strategy, the department and the CAA will work with campaign groups, airports, airlines and ground handlers to produce and implement new and innovative policy proposals.
My Lords, many in this House will be familiar with the experience that the renowned security correspondent of the BBC, Frank Gardner, had at Heathrow recently. I know that the Minister is both committed and energetic on this issue, so can she reassure us that in the event of Britain leaving the EU—in the event—we will be totally committed to maintaining and improving on EU Regulation 1107 and to ensuring that we get everyone to co-operate? It is only through partnership between airports, airlines and service providers that we can put people on equal terms and overcome the indignity and lack of independence that Frank Gardner experienced.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for raising this issue and I pay tribute to the work he has done over many years in this area. On his point about regulations following our exit from the European Union, we will absolutely not fall below current standards set by EU regulations—in this case Regulations 1107 and 261, which will be retained in UK law. I absolutely affirm my commitment to addressing the issues in this area. In our Next Steps document for our aviation policy, published last month, we have committed to make significant improvements, such as helping to raise awareness of the assistance already provided at airports, reviewing the assistance performance standards for airports and airlines and introducing an accredited nationwide accessibility training scheme in an effort to improve the assistance already offered.
My Lords, I am no relation to the Frank Gardner just referred to, but when I travel, particularly internationally, I have to have a wheelchair or some way of being treated and cared for. Sure enough, everywhere overseas they arrive with a wheelchair and someone to push it. At Heathrow it is very deceptive and very wrong that people arriving and needing help are held up a long time. They arrive with an electric vehicle that takes eight people, the eight people get in and are very impressed by how quickly they have been received. They are then taken to what I call a “dumping area” and you all sit there indefinitely until they can find enough people with wheelchairs to take you on. By the time you get down to the arrivals hall all your luggage has long been cleared and they have to find out where it has been moved to. It is quite hopeless, and although I have taken this issue up in the past with Heathrow Airport, nothing happens. It needs proper action to bring us up to international standards in this respect.
My Lords, I am sorry to hear of the experiences of my noble friend. I am afraid that it is another example of some of the terrible experiences I have heard about. Heathrow, in particular, faces some unique challenges, with the high volume of passengers and the very size of the airport: each terminal exceeds in scale other airports in their entirety. Of course, more work must be done to ensure that our biggest airport is accessible to all and that everybody receives a good level of customer service. Heathrow does have an improvement action plan in place to provide a continuous assistance service at the airport and is looking to reduce waiting times. It is also investing in comprehensive disability training schemes. Terminal 5 and British Airways have embarked on a programme aimed at ensuring that a high-quality service is provided for everybody with a disability or who needs assistance. Last year Heathrow set up the Heathrow Access Advisory Group, which has made good progress, the latest initiative being the adoption of a new process around personal wheelchairs last month. This will see all mobility equipment returned to the gate by default—an opt-out rather than an opt-in process—which we hope will address the issue that Mr Gardner faced.
My Lords, I am glad that the Minister raised the issue of wheelchairs being returned to planes because, although it is in the guidance on the CAA website, it is not specified by Heathrow or by most other UK airports—it seems that there is a gap between the CAA guidance and what is actually happening. Part of the problem is that under their KPIs airports are held to account solely for the journey either to or from the plane, and passengers are passed from pillar to post and from staff member to staff member, often untrained. I myself was stuck in a baggage hall at 6 am for an hour because there was no one there to meet me with my chair. What can the Minister do, first, to ensure that all airport authorities come together and work to the CAA’s guidance and, secondly, to encourage new proposals like the Neatebox that is being trialled at Edinburgh, which helps disabled passengers to find assistance very quickly?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her questions. She is quite right to point out that the CAA’s guidance specifies 20 minutes for wheelchairs to be returned. However, that is often not the case, as in Mr Gardner’s experience. That is something we are working with airports on. The CAA is also looking to extend its guidance, which is focused solely on airports at the moment. Of course, we need to work collaboratively with operators across every part of the journey—because we need this to be as seamless as possible—including airlines, airport service providers and handling agents. With the extension of the CAA’s guidance to deal with airlines as well we will definitely see improvements in that area.
The Neatebox is an excellent and innovative idea for providing more information to passengers with a disability. I understand that it is being trialled at Edinburgh Airport and I look forward to seeing the results.
My Lords, I have experienced this issue with a disabled friend, so I thoroughly endorse what has been said. Does the Minister not agree that Heathrow not being able to cope with what it has now is yet another good reason for not expanding it with a third runway?
I am afraid I must disagree with the noble Baroness. I have already explained some of the measures that Heathrow is putting into place in order to improve its service, and I look forward to the debates in the coming months on its expansion.
My Lords, surely this is just a lot of good words. To fix this problem you do not need innovative solutions or great essays full of good words: you need resources. This is Heathrow penny pinching. What are the Government going to do to force Heathrow to put the right resources in?
My Lords, we highlighted accessibility as a key issue to address in our aviation strategy. I do think that there has been progress, but I absolutely agree that there is more to be done. Since becoming Aviation Minister I have held many meetings with campaign and disability groups, as well as airlines and airports, to discuss what steps we can take, and I will continue to do so. This is something I feel very strongly about. It is an area in which we can and will make real improvements, and I am confident that all passengers will see the positive outcomes of our work.