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A review of flying British Airways long-haul with a disabled wheelchair passenger

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We virtually never cover issues relating to disabled or wheelchair passengers on Head for Points, even though it pops up in reader emails on a regular basis.  This is purely because it isn’t an area where any of the HfP team have any experience unlike, say, travelling with small children.

I was therefore very keen when reader Gary offered to write up a trip he took with his wheelchair-bound mother, especially as the trip they took was a deal they found on Head for Points.  We both hope that this article will have some value for anyone else who is considering something similar, especially as it covers both the flights and the process of booking suitable hotels.  Over to Gary ….

Cape Town on British Airways

“After years of explaining to my mother that the reason she didn’t like flying was that she was doing it wrong, she finally called my bluff and agreed to a trip to South Africa. This was all the more remarkable as my mum had a stroke 2 years ago, and has had very limited mobility since. Her husband, Tom, has also had a couple of knee replacements and struggles to walk any distance. They had convinced themselves that they would never fly again.

Thanks to Head for Points, we got the word on a great British Airways deal to Cape Town, First Class for under £2,000 return.  We booked by phone with BA, to find out that the only suitable dates available didn’t have a direct return available from Cape Town – we would have to travel back via Johannesburg. This would mean a long and tiring trip back to our home base of Glasgow, with two stops on the way. It turns out that BA’s strict seven day maximum stay rule didn’t include additional time for layovers – worth noting if these deals come back up again – so we added a couple of nights in Jo’burg to break the journey.

Flights sorted, it was time to book the hotels. As a relatively able-bodied person myself, I was not aware how difficult it is to book a room at a hotel and ensure that you have the accessible bathroom facilities that you need. It also appears that South Africa has little or no legislation on requirements to support disabled access – many hotels simply do not cope with wheelchairs.

Once we narrowed down the hotels we wanted to stay at, I had to contact each hotel, ensure that there was an accessible room, find out what room type that was, and compare prices and availability on the booking sites. I’m a regular user of comparison sites for hotels, but the inability to choose accessible rooms makes them less useful. They are also difficult about letting you choose different room types for the same booking.

My advice is to use them to gauge the best rate, then negotiate directly with the hotel, ensuring that the hotel remains aware of the accessibility requirement.  It is also worth noting that ‘accessible’ is not a universally recognised term – we had to revert to ‘disabled room’ to ensure we were understood.

We ended up choosing the Asara wine estate for three nights, to get a taste of wine country, followed by three nights at the 12 Apostles by the sea near Cape Town itself. Our Jo’burg layover was booked at the Black Rhino Lodge at Pilanesberg Game Reserve – a two hour drive from the airport.

As we had luggage for four adults, and shoes for eight (my wife does not risk having the wrong shoes) plus walking frame and collapsible wheelchair, we needed a sizeable car.  Pilanesberg also offers the opportunity for self-drive safaris, so I booked a Discovery 5 from SMH Car Hire near Johannesburg. They are off site, but will deliver and collect from the airport.

Just to re-iterate at this point – my mother had not flown for years, and would not contemplate flying even before her stroke. In the six months between booking and travelling, we were convinced that she still might cancel.

Our outbound flight

The first part of the journey was straightforward, a taxi to Glasgow Airport courtesy of our local taxi company who use Mercedes V class vans for airport duty. The luggage and four adults fitted – just – and getting in and out of the van was OK.  The drop off at Glasgow to check in is a short walk, and it was explained that our wheelchair could be used all the way to the gate, then stowed in the hold, to be brought back up for the transfer at Heathrow.

Security at Glasgow couldn’t be any friendlier or more helpful, and we were through in minutes. Tom managed the long walk to the one BA lounge, although this was probably about his limit. We got to the gate early, and were boarded first. Mum was in row 1, so it was an easy move from the chair to the seat, and the wheelchair taken away and stowed.

Arrival at Terminal 5 meant waiting for the plane to empty and the assistance crew to arrive. They insisted on using a narrow chair designed to fit between the seat rows to deplane mum, then put her in her own chair, which seems a bit unnecessary, but those are the rules.

We made the dreaded Terminal 5 to Terminal 3 transfer quickly and easily – it appears that mid-afternoon on a Wednesday is a good time to do so. The bus had a ramp that made wheelchair access easy, and we were allowed to skip the modest queue. Once in Terminal 3, we made our way to the Cathay Pacific lounge, and the route was wheelchair friendly with no issues, other than the usual crowding in the public areas.

As required, we headed down to the gate slightly early to allow for priority boarding for mum. Once there, we were moved to the top of the ramp, where the loading chair was waiting. Unfortunately, only one of the assistance crew was there, and he was not allowed to move mum onto the chair on his own. Disappointingly, we ended up waiting until the entire Boeing 747 was boarded before being taken on board.

On board, mum was well looked after.  Tom joined her for dinner in her suite, and things were going well. At some point later she needed to go to the toilet. This was a much more complicated affair. I had ensured that I had booked her in the nearest seat to the toilets on each flight, however it is still a considerable distance when you need support from two people to walk there, and care support to go.

The crew were fabulous, and since both mum and Tom didn’t fit in the toilet at the same time, shielded the doorway with the curtains until mum was settled and the door could be closed – likewise on her exit.  It is worth noting that airplane toilets are in no way suitable for the disabled and some consideration should be given to how the actual mechanics of getting in and out would happen.   We were lucky to be in First Class and have the staff and toilet availability for the time that it took, but I can imagine this being considerably more difficult in a busy economy section.

Landing at Cape Town, we waited for the plane to empty, and left using the loading chair. Mum’s wheelchair was waiting at the door, and as she was about to try and stand and shuffle over to her chair, she was grabbed by two of the Cape Town assistance team and lifted and dropped into her chair. It was over before she knew it had begun, and although incredibly efficient, may not have been as careful as someone with a painful injury might need. Luckily this is not the case with mum, and the difference between ‘health and safety’ concerns at Terminal 3 and Cape Town was quite dramatic.

Mum and Tom were whisked through immigration, but my wife and I had to join the queue. When we got through, we found that the assistance guys had loaded two trolleys with our cases and were set to go.

Off to Asara

I had arranged transport to Asara through Blacklane on their Uber-style app. Our driver Brendon was waiting for us and helped with the luggage, allowing Tom to walk with no bags to carry. The Mercedes V-class was a more upscale version of the one we took to Glasgow with captain’s chairs, which meant that there was less luggage room.  It is worth noting that not all similar vehicles will have the same luggage capacity. We eventually squeezed everything in and set off.

Asara Wine Estate for disable travellers

On arrival at Asara (photo above), we were pointed to a drop-off zone next to a sign pointing to reception. This turned out to be at the top of a flight of stairs, so my wife and I walked down to start checking in, while Brendon was told to follow a road that led towards the reception area. This tuned out to be a major detour around the estate, and they went missing, as far as we were concerned, for quite a while. It was another example of where we in the UK can take disabled access for granted.

Assigned rooms were good – Mum had an easily accessible shower, as requested, while due to some complications with the booking, my wife and I had been upgraded to a fantastic suite with a wraparound balcony overlooking the lake and the vineyards.  Again, due to South Africa’s attitude to accessibility, there was no way for mum to come up to the 1st floor to see the room.  In fact there were some totally inaccessible parts of the hotel, notably the pool area and the wine tasting room.

We used Blacklane again for the next transfer to Cape Town.  Again this went very well, with the 12 Apostles (picture below) being a particularly wheelchair friendly venue – as well as being just a fantastic hotel.

Disabled travel on British Airways

The transfer to Johannesburg

Three nights later it was time for the trip to Johannesburg. Again, Blacklane – and driver Brendon.  Once again, assistance at Cape Town was good, helpful efficient and easily available at check-in. Mum’s stroller was once again slightly too wide for the baggage drop, and once tagged had to be taken to the large baggage drop – conveniently next to the firearm check-in, if you’re wondering. Again, boarding was first and completed using the narrow boarding chair, row 2 this time.

Deplaning was somewhat different this time. We waited for the plane to empty, by the bridge at the front, as normal. Mum was put on the boarding chair, and unusually we were taken to the back of the aircraft, where a service vehicle with a lift body, similar to the catering trucks you will be familiar with was waiting. We got on, took a seat, and it lowered to its travelling height, before making its way around the airport to a doorway normally used for bus transfers. I have no idea why we weren’t simply allowed to leave via the bridge.

A lot of walking later and we ended up at the luggage carousel and got loaded up. We only had one assistance person with us by then, and we eventually got landside where our car delivery guy was waiting. As requested, we had a Discovery 5 waiting for us, which held all the luggage quite easily. Off we drove to Pilanesberg.

On safari

The final two nights were always going to be potentially difficult. We had decided on a safari lodge, as we had already covered city/sea and wine country. It was a long drive, and the roads in the North are not great. There are exciting points where your 120 km/hr road suddenly has a 4-way stop with speed bumps. It’s also very hot, even in March.  We arrived at the Black Rhino as darkness began to fall, tired and thirsty. First impressions were not good – each of the cabins were a long distance from the main lodge, on dirt road then wheelchair-unfriendly gravel. I checked my mails to the hotel, and although we had been told that it was not wheelchair friendly, it was suggested that someone who could walk with assistance would have no problem. I respectfully disagree.

In the end we moved between cabin and lodge using the car, which could get near enough to the cabin to allow mum to get in with only a short wheelchair ride. Although it was workable, it did not make for a relaxing holiday. The major part of a safari holiday is of course the outings. Mum decided she didn’t want to travel in the safari wagons, understandably, despite them being considerably more comfortable than they looked. Pilanesberg does allow some self-drive, although not in the area we were located. The track from the main road to the lodge was sufficiently long, however, that we did get a mini-safari for about half an hour, during which we got to see several animals, including a herd of elephant. And all from the comfort of a nice new Discovery 5.

Heading home

Back at Johannesburg Airport, our off-site car hire company was waiting for us, thanks to regular whatsapp updates on our journey back. We arrived a bit too early, and were prevented from checking in due to a power outage – South Africa has power shortages and has introduced rolling blackouts, known as ‘load shedding’, to help reduce the demand. This appears to completely screw up the airport check-in systems, and we had to sit rather longer than was comfortable landside before being allowed to drop our baggage and make our way airside.

One minor inconvenience was that mum’s stroller, which was accepted on every other part of the journey, needed to be wrapped in plastic this time. We had assistance take us to the lounge, where we sat and had our final South African drinks. As we were so tired, we tried to find more comfortable chairs to relax in.  These are rare in the British Airways First Class lounge in Johannesburg and we actually had more luck by moving to the considerably less crowded business section.

Boarding was possibly the best yet – straight down to the front, the now familiar ‘efficient’ African chair swap, and into 1st Class on a very pleasant A380. Within minutes we were settled with our drinks in our hands. I can’t comment on the toilet process this time, as mum had decided that after the last time, she simply wasn’t going on the plane again.  It was interesting to note that there are larger toilets in business class upstairs on the BA A380 fleet as this is where most airlines put First Class.

Landing at Heathrow was, as ever, a long long wait for assistance.  Although I had always booked assistance for Tom and rarely used it, he was going to need it this time, as we were at a Terminal 5C gate and had a long way to go for immigration and transfer. This was, of course, the time that no assistance was available.  Mum was OK, but by the time we got along the corridor toward the train, we had to ask our assistance guy to get another chair – which took ages.  Heathrow is just too big and too spread out to be convenient if you have any form of mobility issue and they need to improve their assistance team quite considerably.  Always plan a much longer transfer than you might expect.

Despite a two and a half hour transfer within the same terminal, we got to our A gate pretty much on time for early boarding. We headed down the ramp only to be stopped and held at the top of the bridge.  I suspect our original plane may have gone tech, because when we eventually got to board, it was onto a brand new A321neo, which still didn’t have branding, curtains, or the middle-seat trays in Club Europe. Again, boarding was simple using the narrow boarding chair, which mum had been placed in during the wait.

Arrival at Glasgow meant the reverse of the above.  Another tip for those travelling with restricted mobility travellers – do not hold the boarding trolley steady while they load it up, because when they go to move, you’ll trap your fingers in the brake lever.  This is something I should have learned the first two times it happened.

Our assistance team in Glasgow was just one person, and again Tom needed a chair, which was duly provided. This meant that when we got to the luggage carousel, we had two trolleys, two chairs, and three pushers between us – impressively, the girl from the Glasgow assistance team simply grabbed both Tom’s chair and a trolley and made her way out to the car park where our V-class taxi would be waiting.

Mum and Tom have decided that the trip has been a revelation, and that flying does not have to be a chore.  Both are in their 80s with various degrees of mobility issues, but they have now decided that travelling the world is an option open to them.

Despite some minor hiccups (mostly Heathrow induced) the whole trip was actually surprising easy, despite the non-wheelchair friendly aspects of some of the hotels.  I’d avoid safari locations, unless they are explicitly wheelchair friendly, but everywhere else was remarkably straightforward.  Never assume that it is too late to take a parent or elderly relative on another great trip.”

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Comments (96)

  • Marina says:

    Excellent review

  • Mike says:

    Gary – great review. Thank you for sharing. Rob I would be definately be keen to see more similiar articles.

  • James says:

    Thank you for taking the time to document your experience. This is very insightful and important for those of us who do not have to deal with travel for lesser abled people.

    As a frequent flier, I found myself getting out of an Uber at LHR T3 recently and saw a gentleman who clearly had Parkinsons getting out of a car. I went to help and ended up walking with him and pushing his luggage trolley to the Canada Air business class check in desk given there was no visible or available support at the door. Once at the desk, I explained to the agent that I was not part of his traveling party and requested assistance to help the gentleman beyond check in as I had to get to my flight with another airline. The answer was laughable and disgraceful – he can get a wheelchair over there – pointing to the far end of the terminal. I then explained in an assertive manner how this was totally unacceptable and he should be ashamed of himself for expecting a gentleman with extremely limited mobility (anyone who knows Parkinsons understands this) to find his own wheelchair! He muttered an apology and then picked up the phone and sorted it out.

    I was so shocked that this level of advocacy was required to get some help. Shame on Heathrow and shame on Air Canada.

    • Spurs Debs says:

      Welcome to the world of disability Gary.

    • JamesLHR says:

      Unfortunately this is because of the process in place at Heathrow and in fact across Europe.

      Airlines used to be responsible for organising and arranging wheelchair assistance but the EU defined the airport as responsible. So now in the EU you have a single provider who does the assistance work.

      Their standard procotol is to operate from a single multi use place where people go to begin their assistance journey. As it is processed in a first come first served basis, people who require assistance at check in are normally made to wait. Therefore the standard processes have become “make your way over there.”

      It’s not right but that is how the process has unfortunately become because of how it is arranged due to the EU rules. Smaller airports cope better than bigger airports due to size and volume.

      • Spurs Debs says:

        To quote PJW “ imagine my shock ” at this info.
        I didn’t know that but explains a lot.

      • Lady London says:

        If it’s a single provider for all airport services in all the EU, then how come Heathrow gets singled out as providing even worse service than other EU airports? This does not make sense. Either it’s a single airport provider for the EU that operates consistent servies in all EU, or it’s not.

        There are so many bad stories about non provision of this service, which the airport is required to provide by status, at Heathrow – is this material for a class action against the provider?

        • Lady London says:

          *by status = by statute ie. required by law to provide

        • Spurs Debs says:

          My view is because LHR is such a huge busy airport it just can’t cope with the amount of people or their own system.

      • Roosit says:

        If I may, even though with limited experience, I wouldn’t generalise on bigger airports as FRA seems to be great. My grandparents have flown from FRA a number of times, absolutely flawless experience every time. My sister was allowed to accompany them on the airport buggies if there was space, and she said she’s never been quicker through the airport. No waiting around or being lost, full service from start to finish. My granddad (in his 80s and still able to walk short distances with a stroller) liked it so much he’s willing to fly by himself now (having not flown for about 20 years before).
        Regarding the seat location on the plane mentioned in the article, in LCY we were told the last row was best because the service vehicle (the one that lifts up) would pick us up from the back (the BA Embraer flying from LCY to FRA land on an outside position away from the terminal building so front has the steps and thus coming off the plane step free will be at the back). Again, accompanying passengers in the same group (in this case my husband and I) were allowed to join and stay with the grandparents.
        Experience in LHR was less amazing than FRA or LCY but from what I’m reading here we were still lucky with a wheelchair and one member of staff available for my grandmother, even though assistance had been booked for both grandparents (grandad was able to manage, having got his stroller at the bridge). However, from all the experience, I shall make sure to book LCY again for further trips, not to tempt our luck. Thank you very much for the article and advice!

  • marcw says:

    This is really interesting to read. It makes you think about it… “how lucky you are if you enjoy an non-dependent on someones life”. But there are still many that complain about ridiculous things (AKA first world problems…).

    I’m glad you enjoyed the trip!

  • Richard Bond says:

    Thanks Gary for an interesting and well written article. Over the past couple of years my wife has needed wheelchair assistance and it has been interesting to compare across many countries the relative levels of ‘assistance’ and the efficiency of airports and staff in delivering them. The gold star goes to Amsterdam, where on two occasions with overnight stays between flights ( BA CW fare deals originating in Amsterdam) the agents giving assistance happily pushed my wife the long distance to the Hilton- on both occasions tips were also politely refused. Sadly consistently last in levels of efficiency is Heathrow. Failure to turn up at the lounge, panic calls by staff to the handling agent and on arrival poor coordination between the agent pushing the wheelchair passengers up the boarding ramp and the lack of timely availability of the buggy have often meant very slow transfer times.
    Generally crews and ground staff everywhere have been helpful and the experience positive.

  • Michael C says:

    Great article – I’ve recently been packing off/picking up mum using special assistance, and whatever the airport, the employees have been universally lovely.

    Just as a fyi, Birmingham airport is extremely “easy” in this sense.

  • Volker says:

    Very inspirational and well-written article! My parents are approaching their 80s, and while they travelled the whole world when they were younger, they decided at some point that they were too old for air travel. They do not depend on wheelchairs but claim they couldn’t visit me in Scotland due to their age… I will read this article to them and see what they say 🙂
    On a different note: „…a brand new A321neo, which still didn’t have branding, curtains, or the middle-seat trays in Club Europe…“ I thought these planes would never get middle-seat trays anyway?

    • Gary Sharp says:

      Sorry, you know more about these things than I do – I just assumed that they would be kitted out like other airbus short haul business class.

  • Ollie says:

    I travel to and from NYC on BA Club World and other US cities, and also BA to and from European airports. I use wheelchair services at all of them. In my experience Heathrow is by far the worst of any others I’ve experienced. Budapest is fantastic and very efficient. Newark and JFK have both been very good. Sadly at Heathrow I’m often not boarded before other passengers (which is what should happen) and am often left waiting on the plane for a long period after the plane is empty as Heathrow has lost the wheelchair, or no staff are available to come to he aircraft. In one case we were waiting on an empty plane for over 1.5hrs.

    I’m very grateful these services exist as I couldn’t travel without them, but Heathrow in particular still needs to improve its delivery of services (of which the primary users are older travellers, rather than the chronically ill like me).

    The service is there for anyone who needs assistance getting through the airport. They should not (and do not) ask why, and so I’d encourage anyone who finds distances difficult to walk or standing for long periods difficult to not hesitate using these services – just pre-book it with the airline in advance.

    • Spurs Debs says:

      I’ve been forgotten on more than one occasion at Heathrow, it’s beyond frustrating.
      Recently landed at JFK no wheelchair for me had to wait then 4turned up !
      Best lounge/assistance I’ve been in this year was at Barcelona they got me in plenty of time no stress boarded me first. Unlike Heathrow.
      As a side note went to Abu Dhabi last year in first boarding for disabled is done by ambi lift, we were waiting ages and the guy went to see what was going on and it turned out we were waiting for another passenger we had asked for assistance but had already boarded on his own.
      A lot of people abuse the system so they don’t have to queue through security or pay for seat selection and as airlines can’t ask you about your disability this abuse is on the increase.
      Returned from Antigua one year and was on a buggy with another lady her “ daughter and grandchild” turned out we’re trying to get in country illegally and again they think if they attach themselves to someone getting assistance it’s easier to get through passport control. The assistance guy said it happens all the time.

      • Greg says:

        Interesting you say that they shouldn’t ask what your disability is as BA always ask me.

        • Spurs Debs says:

          Gary legally they are not allowed to. Maybe remind them it’s against disability legislation to ask!
          They will say so they can give you the right assistance but the options are online.

          Or you can tell them if you want them to know,you don’t have to prove it with drs letter or anything.

          Not all disabilities are physical, those with a learning disability autism etc are entitled to help as well.

        • The Savage Squirrel says:

          Spurs Debs. What you say is correct. However it is a question that someone who genuinely wants to provide the correct help would also ask! No point turning up with a wheelchair when that was not the assistance required… I do also have some sympathy with airlines having to find a way to police abuse of the system. As referred to in previous comments there are a small minority who sadly will abuse any service, (possibly to get free seat selection and a free “porter” through the airport?). To be fair I have never yet seen this myself in the UK – the only obvious examples of this I’ve seen have been in the USA (a possible symptom of the same mindset that allows people to take their “emotional assistance horse” or whatever on board?).

          If the question is not to be asked, how would you suggest airlines police such abuses (especially as they diminish the resources available for those who rely on such assistance).

      • Spurs Debs says:

        Savage squirrel I think eventually they will move towards some sort of verification ie drs letter Letter from DWP etc.
        If you book online you get 3 levels of assistance to chose from. You don’t have to speak to a CA at all.
        I think better training and knowledge of disability legislation is required by CA.
        There’s a way of asking and then there’s a whole different way of asking.

        Unfortunately like all systems you will never iradicate all fraud and I agree while some
        people take the provible genuine people will suffer.

        I personally have no objections to supplying proof, as long as that information is stored
        and used correctly no data breaches !

        If we ever leave the EU maybe that’s one area we can take back control and airlines can arrange their own assistance programmes like they used to do.

        I really want to see one of these emotiona assistance horses now …

        There’s no quick or easy fix, but as the population gets older and increases so will the need for assistance.

        Another misuse is people booking assistance for their relations who don’t speak whatever the country’s language is so they don’t have to travel with them.

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