New report on disabled passengers’ experience of air travel from OCS Group

28th Jul 2016

Study recommends more collaboration between airlines, airports and service providers in order to improve quality

A new report based on the experiences of 543 passengers has recommended more collaboration between airlines, airports and service providers in order to improve the quality of assistance to persons with reduced mobility (PRM) at UK airports. The report was commissioned to support the fact-finding phase of a long term improvement programme led by OCS Group to gain a fuller understanding of the disabled passenger needs and address them with an improved level of service provision.

OCS Group is the largest provider of assistance to persons with reduced mobility (PRM) in the UK and Ireland, and helps over one million passengers at nine airports each year. In the next phase of consultation, OCS has convened workshops at airports involving customer groups focused on different disabilities along with all service providers – airlines, airport, PRM providers and baggage handling. The first of the workshops was held at Glasgow Airport in June 2016 and is being followed up with working groups to specify and implement the service improvements.

he report found that lack of knowledge among disabled passengers about the advance booking process led to uncertainty, lack of confidence in service provision and customer dissatisfaction. The main passenger uncertainty was confusion over the roles and respective responsibilities of the airline, airport, baggage handler and PRM service provider. By contrast, frequent flyers who knew how to book and specify the assistance they need reported a higher level of satisfaction with the Passenger Assistance Service.

“Airlines, airports, baggage handlers and PRM service providers such as OCS Group are all committed to excellent customer service but it is clear that we need to collaborate more effectively,” said Steven Wheeler, Customer Services Director for OCS Group.

“After 50 years of experience in the aviation sector, OCS is acutely aware of the difference between achieving compliance and delivering excellence for disabled passengers. We commissioned this report to gain a greater understanding of the experiences of disabled travellers and the specific challenges they face at airports. As a result of the findings, we are committed to taking a lead in co-ordinating dispersed services and working with airlines, airports, baggage handlers and other service providers in order to bring the different parties together to provide a seamless and first class service,” he said.

Lord Blunkett, chair of the easyJet Special Assistance Advisory Group (ESAAG), contributed to the report. In his submission, he acknowledged that air travel is complex but called for a travel experience for disabled people that is efficient, seamless and respectful:

“Confusion about individual-specific travel needs can become misinterpreted. I have, for example, as a blind person, experienced being offered a wheelchair at the airport. Dignity and access that many simply take for granted can be denied to disabled people”.

The report puts forward 16 recommendations for industry consideration, including improved use of technology for service co-ordination and to record the nature of individual disabilities to help deliver the support required, as indicated by these respondents:

“The airline knows I am a vegetarian on my membership form but they don’t know I have a limb difference, which means I need help with my bags. I can’t record this anywhere. So often when I turn up at the airport there is a wheelchair waiting for me. I don’t need a chair, my legs work just fine.”

“I want to feel peace of mind. For it to reliable and consistent. Currently, it causes much anxiety as you never know whether the assistance you have requested/booked will actually happen. Also, what happens seems to differ every time–even with the same airline.”

Only 17% of disabled passengers in the study were confident that the airport would have arrangements in place to handle their access requirements. The remaining 83% expressed various degrees of anxiety about the service – with 32% reporting “a lot of fear” and 27% worrying “a great deal” about how they will manage at the airport. Yet when judging quality, only 14% felt it was poor, with 11% rating it as poor and 3% extremely poor. One proposal is development of an App to support a consistent and global booking process across all airlines and service providers. The report suggests this innovation could help to resolve the recurring problem of inconsistency of service between different locations and between different parties in the service delivery chain, in order to prevent the types of inconsistencies reported in the OCS disabled passenger study.

“The three-part set-up means they are all happy to pass the buck to someone else. More consistency and responsibility would help.”

“It can be very good, although this is rare, and it can be appalling. The inconsistency causes huge amounts of worry.”

“I never get the same service twice – it all just seems such a mystery – why can’t it be consistent? This would remove the fear I have.”

The report noted that 30% of disabled passengers are still not booking their airport assistance in advance as required, which can result in a huge strain on resources at the airport, with associated implications on cost and also on the quality of service delivered to those who pre-booked. Several respondents were supportive of the proposed recommendation of a differentiation in service for pre-booked assistance, along with the recommendation that airlines make clearer the obligation on disabled passengers to notify the airport in advance of their assistance needs when travel is booked with the airline:

“If you book your car in for a service you don’t expect to be bumped down the queue just because someone else arrived without a booking. Now you have pointed it out it does make sense to have a scheme that gives better service to pre-booked appointments. This would also educate customers for future trips.”

“I did not know I could book in advance and approached passenger assistance on the day of travel.”

“I didn’t know how to book assistance in advance, I just assumed it was made available on demand.”

OCS Group says it is in the interests of all parties to work together to improve the service.

“A poor service experience for a disabled passenger reflects badly on the reputation of the airport and also the airline with which the passenger travelled – to which they are most likely to complain. That sort of reputational damage and reputation risk is in no-one’s interests and OCS Group is committed to taking a lead to fix the problem as far as we can across the industry,” said Steven Wheeler.

The report, Challenging for Change: Airport Experiences: How disabled people feel about the service they receive, is based on customer narratives and verbatim responses gathered from 534 disabled passengers between February and November 2015. The methodology combined focus groups, telephone survey and individual travel logs and in-depth customer journeys to allow researchers to observe and test every stage of the Passenger Assistance Service. The report was compiled by Kay Allen, OBE, for OCS Group and is part of a wider project to calibrate the needs, experiences and opinions of disabled people about Passenger Assistance Services. OCS Group is then leading an industry-wide effort to confirm the priority service improvements need to be made across the sector in response to the findings and how to deliver quality improvements based on the recommendations in the report.

"The initial report is available for download from the website below

OCS Group welcomes consultations, comments and feedback on the proposed recommendations, which can be sent to the email below:"

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