London Heathrow Airport has struggled with ground handling over the summer months as post-Covid travel demand surges. It recently imposed a cap of 100,000 departing passengers per day. As a result, 4,000 more passengers were expected to depart each day than Heathrow thought it could safely handle.
The request has not gone down well with airlines, many of which have already had to cancel several flights due to their own staff shortages. In a press release, Emirates first very publicly rebelled against the cap, saying it had no intention of canceling flights. However, in a rather odd twist, they backed off with another statement saying they would work with Heathrow to adjust the numbers a few days later. Emirates have since added an additional flight to Gatwick instead.
One of the areas Heathrow is struggling in is assisting passengers, such as those who need wheelchairs. In an interview with Nick Ferrari for LBC radio, Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye defended the airport’s position. LBC host Nick Ferrari gave an example of the challenges faced by wheelchair users at Heathrow’s Terminal 3: “Last week 20 passengers in wheelchairs waited in their assigned area have someone walk them through immigration. There was no air conditioning; these people sitting there knowing it was an absolute disgrace.”
One passenger who recently encountered such problems at Heathrow is accessible travel writer John Morris of Wheelchair Travel. John was left waiting on the air bridge late at night for an aisle chair long after all the other passengers had boarded his British Airways flight.
John explains: “With increased pressures on airport and airline staff, it has been a difficult summer for people with disabilities traveling by air. Wait times for assistance have steadily increased to an hour or more, which has delayed boarding and disembarkation for customers who are wheelchair dependent.These delays often worsen, resulting in delayed flights, which negatively affects all passengers, disabled or not.
Heathrow chief John Holland-Kaye justified the delays by saying Heathrow had the same number of wheelchair support staff as before Covid. However, there has been an increase in demand for passenger assistance this year, which Holland-Kaye says is the result of people trying to bypass queues by asking for help. Traditionally, wheelchair users are moved to the front of the queue for safety reasons, which means less waiting time in today’s excessively long queues. The airport boss believes that other travelers who do not need assistance are now requesting it due to the long queue at the airport trying to be expedited.
Mr Holland-Kaye blamed the surge in demand on a Tik Tok hack where a non-disabled man pretended to be injured to request a wheelchair and avoid queues. John told LBC: “For passengers requiring wheelchair assistance, we have more demand than before the pandemic. Why is this happening? It’s partly because people are using wheelchair assistance trying to get to the airport quickly. This is absolutely the wrong thing to do.”
He continued, “If you go to TikTok, you’ll see this is one of the travel hacks people recommend. Please don’t do this.” John Morris of Wheelchair Travel commented: “The so-called travel hack depicted on TikTok is troubling as it leaves disabled passengers without the essential services they need for equal access to air travel.”
Of course, one could point out that Heathrow’s understaffing in other areas, causing long security queues, could also be blamed for the trend, morally reprehensible as it is.