The House of Lords is scheduled to consider the following question for short debate on 23 November 2023:

Baroness Brinton (Liberal Democrat) to ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of air travel for disabled passengers.

1. Overview of existing rights

Passengers with a disability or reduced mobility are legally entitled to support, commonly known as ‘special assistance’, when travelling by air. This includes people with a physical disability, such as wheelchair users, people who have difficulty with social interaction and communication, such as those with autism or dementia, and passengers who may have difficulty moving around due to age or a temporary injury.[1] These rights apply to passengers flying on any airline from a UK airport, on any EU or UK registered airline to a UK airport or from outside of the UK or EU to the EU on a UK carrier.

Government guidance on disabled passengers’ air travel rights states that assistance suitable to a passenger’s needs must be provided without any cost to the passenger at an airport or on board an aircraft.[2] This includes, but is not limited to:

  • assistance at check-in and with baggage
  • help storing and retrieving baggage
  • support throughout emigration, customs and security procedures
  • moving to toilet facilities if required
  • transport of up to two pieces of mobility equipment in addition to medical equipment

The guidance adds that passengers who want special assistance should aim to give 48 hours’ notice of the help they require. It also states that passengers who are not self-reliant, for example passengers who need help with feeding, breathing, using medication or using the toilet, must travel with a companion.

Notwithstanding these rights, an air carrier may refuse to accept a reservation from or to embark a disabled person or a person with reduced mobility on certain grounds. These include to meet applicable safety requirements or if the size of the aircraft or its doors makes the embarkation or carriage of a disabled person or person with reduced mobility physically impossible.[3]

Disability Rights UK, which campaigns for an inclusive society for disabled people, is one of a number of organisations that have said transport infrastructure, including air transport infrastructure, “consistently” fails to meet the needs of those with disabilities despite the existing rights framework.[4]

There have been several media reports in recent years about disabled passengers who have had poor experiences when travelling by air. These include the case of a paraplegic man whose self-propelling wheelchair was left behind on a flight and a quadriplegic passenger who was left on a plane for more than an hour and a half after it had landed before receiving assistance.[5]

Baroness Grey-Thompson is among those who have spoken about experiencing poor passenger assistance when flying. She has also said disabled people are now “routinely […] told they are not allowed to fly on their own because of health and safety”.[6]

BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner has also posted about his personal experiences when disembarking aircraft in particular. Mr Gardner has argued that “only penalties and fines” will change the situation. He has also said that “repeated apologies for poor service just don’t cut it”.[7]

2. Regulatory measures and performance monitoring

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is the UK’s aviation regulator and is responsible for enforcing consumer laws that apply to accessibility in the aviation sector. The regulator may deal with unresolved complaints when an airport or airline does not have an agreement with an alternative dispute resolution body.[8]

In June 2022, following disruption across the aviation sector due to staff shortages at airports and airlines, the CAA wrote to industry stakeholders to warn them that they could face enforcement action if services for disabled and less mobile passengers did not improve.[9] The letter stated:

We recognise the efforts made by airports to ensure that, for the vast majority of passengers, assistance is continuing to be provided in a timely manner this summer, despite the current challenges. It is, however, disappointing that in recent months there has been a dip in performance at some airports. Our own reporting framework tells us that many more disabled and less mobile passengers have had to wait longer for assistance than usual. Although obviously a concern to us and frustrating for those passengers it has affected, we do understand the recruitment challenges for staff to provide the assistance service as part of the general recruitment challenge in aviation.

However, it added:

Notwithstanding the challenges noted above, the CAA is very concerned about the increase in reports that we have received of significant service failings, some of which have been highlighted through the media. These significant service failings are simply unacceptable.

Since 2014 the CAA has published annual airport accessibility reports in which it awards airports scores based on waiting times for assistance. The most recent report, published in July 2023, assessed 26 of the largest UK airports.[10] It found that airport services for disabled and less mobile passengers had “improved significantly” over the reporting year (April 2022 to March 2023), with 18 airports having “consistently achieved a good or very good rating”. In an accompanying summary, it said:

Seven airports improved from a poor rating to a good or very good rating over the year. These airports struggled to meet performance targets in the first two quarters, but improved to a ‘very good’ rating by the end of the year. Among those is Manchester Airport, which has invested heavily in recruitment and equipment and subsequently delivered significant improvements in the quality of the assistance service at the airport.

London Luton, which was previously highlighted as a lower performing airport in an interim report published in December, has also made significant improvements, scoring very good in the last quarter.

While London Heathrow continues to be rated as ‘needs improvement’ in this report, the airport demonstrated improvements in the service provided to passengers across all four quarters. This was against a backdrop of a 50% increase in the proportion of passengers using the assistance service since 2019, alongside being the airport with the highest total demand for assistance services in the UK airports. The report also notes that the airport did achieve the performance standards needed to be rated as ‘good’ in the April 2023 to June 2023 period.

In April 2023 the CAA published a consultation on a new performance framework for airline accessibility following the earlier introduction of a framework for airports. The consultation closed a week before the latest annual airport accessibility report was published in July.[11]

3. Government policy

In July 2018 the government published an ‘Inclusive transport strategy’ in which it set out its ambitions for inclusive transport, including in the aviation sector.[12] On aviation, this said:

Disabled passengers already have statutory rights when travelling by air. But we recognise that more can still be done to give disabled people the confidence to travel by air.

The government added that it would work to understand more about the barriers that exist for passengers with reduced mobility and disabilities, and with industry to remove these obstacles, as part of work towards a future aviation strategy.

In December 2018 the government launched a consultation on the future of UK aviation.[13] The consultation had been preceded by an earlier call for evidence.[14]

The consultation highlighted the earlier inclusive transport strategy and its aims to improve awareness and enforcement of passenger rights, staff training, information availability and formats, and physical infrastructure. It noted that more than 70% of passengers who had flown in last 12 months and requested assistance were happy with the service provided. It added the government intended to “continue working with specialists in aviation accessibility, designers, manufacturers, disability groups and airlines” to consider how further improvements to service standards could be made.

The government published its response in July 2022.[15] The response highlighted the ‘Aviation passenger charter’ published at the same time, which a majority of consultation respondents had been in favour of developing. This had been drafted as single point of information on passengers rights and responsibilities further to the ambition to the previously stated ambition improve the accessibility of information on passenger rights. The government said disability groups had been involved in its development.[16]

In January 2022 the government published a further consultation on reforming aviation consumer policy to collect views on a range of consumer issues, including potential reforms to improve accessibility for disabled and less mobile passengers. This included potential changes around compensation for repair or the replacement of wheelchairs or mobility aids in the event of damage or loss on a domestic UK flight.[17]

The government published its response to this consultation in June 2023. It noted the consultation had built on earlier proposals in the context of Brexit and pandemic-era lessons around consumer experience. It observed that recurring themes in responses included:

  • avoiding damage to wheelchairs and mobility aids in the first place, with more and better training, guidance
  • a disconnect between industry and consumers around the use of travel insurance for wheelchairs and mobility aids
  • calls for working with manufacturers to ensure wheelchairs are built to withstand air travel, and to help provide information to those handling the equipment to help them secure and handle the items better

The response also highlighted the CAA’s proposals for an airline accessibility framework, which was the subject of a consultation launched by the CAA earlier in the year (see above). It also said the government would seek to “legislate when parliamentary time allows” to:

  • enhance the enforcement powers of the CAA by providing additional administrative tools, such as issuing financial penalties
  • improve the coverage of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms by making ADR membership mandatory for airlines operating to, from and within the UK
  • remove the existing cap on compensation for wheelchairs or mobility aids damaged on domestic UK flights

In July 2021 the government had appointed Ann Frye OBE as a disability and access ambassador for aviation with a remit to improve accessibility and the quality of services and facilities for disabled people at airports. Ms Frye is an independent consultant on the mobility needs of disabled and older people with extensive experience working on mobility issues at the Department for Transport and the CAA.[18] Speaking in late 2022 on the issue of compensation for repair or replacement of wheelchairs in particular, Ms Frye said the “whole business of compensation” was currently “out of kilter” with the costs of custom-built mobility aids.[19]

4. Read more

Cover image by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash.


  1. UK Civil Aviation Authority, ‘Passengers with disabilities and reduced mobility’, accessed 17 November 2023. Return to text
  2. Department for Transport, ‘Rights of disabled passengers on transport’, updated 23 November 2022. Return to text
  3. House of Commons, ‘Access to transport for disabled people’, 11 July 2022, p 56. Return to text
  4. DPO Forum England, ‘Disabled people’s manifesto’, accessed 17 November 2023. See also: Disability Rights UK, ‘Disabled people’s manifesto for the general election’, accessed 17 November 2023. Return to text
  5. BBC News, ‘Paraplegic man drags himself through airport’, 2 November 2018; and ‘Gatwick Airport apologises to disabled passenger left on plane’, 6 June 2022. Return to text
  6. Baroness Grey-Thompson, ‘Tanni Grey-Thompson: Personal X account’, 21 May 2022; and House of Commons Transport Committee, Oral evidence: Accessible transport: Legal obligations, 14 June 2023, HC 580 of session 2022–23, Q14. Return to text
  7. BBC News, ‘Frank Gardner: “It happened again”—Why are wheelchair-users left on planes?’, 20 May 2022; and Frank Gardner, ‘Frank Gardner: Personal X account’, 1 July 2022. Return to text
  8. UK Civil Aviation Authority, ‘Passengers with disabilities and reduced mobility’, accessed 17 November 2023. Return to text
  9. CAA, ‘Letter to industry: Providing assistance to disabled and less mobile passengers’, 9 June 2022. See also: Guardian, ‘Airports must stop failing disabled passengers, says UK regulator’, 10 June 2022. Return to text
  10. Civil Aviation Authority, ‘Regulator praises accessibility improvements across UK airports’, 20 July 2023; and ‘Airport accessibility report: 2022/23’, 20 July 2023. Return to text
  11. Civil Aviation Authority, ‘Performance framework for airline accessibility’, accessed 17 November 2023. Return to text
  12. Department for Transport, ‘Inclusive transport strategy’, 25 July 2018. Return to text
  13. Department for Transport, ‘Aviation strategy’, updated 26 May 2022; and ‘Aviation 2050: The future of UK aviation’, updated 17 July 2022. Return to text
  14. Department for Transport, ‘A new aviation strategy for the UK: Call for evidence’, updated 7 April 2018. Return to text
  15. Department for Transport, ‘Aviation 2050: The future of UK aviation’, updated 17 July 2022. Return to text
  16. Department for Transport, ‘Air passenger travel guide’, 17 July 2022. Return to text
  17. Department for Transport, ‘Reforming aviation consumer policy: Protecting air passenger rights’, updated 27 June 2023. Return to text
  18. House of Commons, ‘Written question: Aviation: Disability (186711)’, 9 June 2023; and Disability Unit, ‘List of disability and access ambassadors’, updated 21 March 2023. Return to text
  19. House Magazine, ‘How disabled people face broken air travel—and broken wheelchairs’, 3 November 2022. Return to text