People with disabilities to keep fighting for better EU air services

Europe, July 5 2011

Rights campaigners say they will have to keep on fighting to improve the treatment of disabled people when flying in Europe, after a meeting with the European Union’s top transport official yielded little progress.

“This is going to take years and years to break down the discrimination that persons with disabilities are facing every day,” Stig Langvad, of the European Disability Forum EDF.L, said on Monday.

EU officials met the campaigning group, representing roughly 80 million disabled Europeans, last week to discuss the difficulties facing passengers in wheelchairs when flying in the 27-member bloc.

But the EDF said it won little in the meeting with Siim Kallas, the EU transport commissioner.

“Kallas was not really keen on looking into the perspective of how the implementation (of disability rights laws) is going,” Langvad told Reuters.

Airlines have been the target of a string of pending lawsuits over practices when dealing with disabled travellers.

But Langvad said there had been little progress in trying to make airlines apply existing passenger rights laws consistently throughout member states or ensure that equipment such as wheelchairs are handled properly by airport staff.

The EDF will continue lobbying the EU’s transport directorate to regulate compliance with existing laws and improve airline staff training, Langvad said.

The EU still plans to revise the existing guidelines to clarify in what circumstances passengers can be denied boarding, he added.

The transport directorate did not return calls or reply to emails asking for comment.

The meeting was called after complaints about several European airlines reached the European Commission, including one from the U.N.’s disability representative, who was prevented from boarding a European flight on Swiss International Airlines in April.

Ryanair (RYA.I) lost a lawsuit in Britain earlier this year in a case over a wheelchair user woman who was stuck on the runway when a requested hydraulic ambulance lift to raise her to the plane’s door was not available.

The woman’s husband carried her onto the plane on his shoulders and the court found that employees gave no help. Air Europa, EasyJet (EZJ.L) and Air Berlin (AB1.DE) have also been the subjects of recent complaints to the Commission.

A 2006 EU law requires airports and airlines to board passengers with reduced mobility. However, an assessment from April found that compliance has been shaky at best.

Problems often occur when disabled passengers have already booked tickets and requested assistance or mobility equipment. They find the equipment does not arrive or is late, wheelchairs are mishandled or in some cases passengers are forbidden to board unless accompanied by a non-disabled person.

In many cases, problems arose because disabled passengers simply did not know their rights, it found.

The European Commission said in April it would take a tougher stance on the issue, and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso promised last month to hold the first “State of the Union of Disability” to discuss policy reforms with EU leaders in December.


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