By John Pring Disability News Service 22nd March 2018
The equality watchdog has called for the courts to decide if airlines are discriminating against disabled people by refusing to allow them to make simple alterations to tickets bought for their personal assistants (PAs).
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) called this week on businesses like British Airways (BA) to ask themselves if they could be doing more to support disabled people’s access to transport.
The watchdog spoke out this week after hearing of the case of Rachael Monk.
Disability News Service (DNS) reported last week that Monk was having to pay hundreds of pounds extra to fly to Canada to visit a friend because BA refused to alter a ticket she bought for one of her two PAs, after the PA quit their job and pulled out of the trip.
As a result of the DNS story, the US-based agency AviRate – which rates hundreds of airlines across the world on their performance, particularly on the safety and satisfaction levels of passengers – this week downgraded BA’s “quality score” by 25 points, from 65 to just 40 out of 100, which saw it drop from a three-star quality score to a two-star rating.
The downgrading means BA’s overall three-star rating will fall to just two stars if it experiences another similar quality or safety-related incident.
AviRate said BA’s behaviour towards Monk was “inappropriate” and a “slap in the face”.
Despite widespread anger among disabled people at BA’s actions, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which is supposed to promote the rights of disabled passengers to receive assistance when travelling by air, has refused to comment on the issue this week.
CAA refused to discuss the subject of PAs and ticket transfers with BA this week and said it would only do so if it received an official complaint from Monk.
A CAA spokesman said: “We are naturally concerned to hear that the passenger feels she has been unfairly treated and we would be happy to discuss the issue directly with her.”
Monk, who has cerebral palsy and uses an electronic device to communicate, always needs two PAs with her, and so had to buy three tickets for a long-planned trip to Canada to visit her closest friend, Steph.
She started planning the trip at the beginning of 2017 and bought three tickets last July at £460 each.
When one of the PAs she had bought a ticket for later resigned and pulled out of the trip, she asked BA to change the name on that ticket so that another PA could travel with her instead.
But the airline refused and said she would have to buy a new ticket, which at last week’s prices cost her another £780.
This means that she has now had to pay nearly £2,200 for a trip that would have cost a non-disabled person just £460.
BA also told her that the £90 BA insurance policy she had bought did not cover the purchase of a replacement ticket.
BA told DNS last week that it does not allow disabled passengers to transfer their tickets to a replacement PA because it “could lead to a secondary market of trading in airline tickets”.
It said it offers passengers “a 24-hour cooling-off period so they can check that the name on the ticket matches the name on their passport”, and provides “a range of tickets including fully flexible and refundable options and always [advises] customers to choose the product that meets their individual needs”.
Monk, from Dumfries and Galloway, who has campaigned for years on disability rights issues, and has previously advised the Scottish government and the Disability Rights Commission, has accused BA of disability discrimination for refusing to alter the ticket.
She believes that altering the ticket would have been a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act.
She said this week that she wanted to take the issue “as far as possible”.
She said: “I have been overwhelmed by the support of both family and friends, not to mention all of the people sharing my post on Facebook; everybody appears to be behind me.
“I don’t just want results from BA for myself, but also for the benefit of all disabled people who require support and may find themselves in a similar situation with any airline.
“My message to BA is that I have had to fight all my life, so another fight for the rights of disabled people is something I will not back down on.
“I am so very upset and disappointed by the lack of common sense and compassion by the airline.
“They have cast a very dark cloud over a holiday that I have saved hard for and was so looking forward too.”
She added: “I am pleased to see that BA have been downgraded on quality, as again it shows that people are listening to my situation and understanding the seriousness of BA’s actions.”
Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, said: “This situation is no doubt familiar to countless people living with a disability.
“Access to transport is a key plank of independent living for 13 million disabled people living in the UK.
“Whether or not non-transferable tickets, and the need to pay for PA tickets, in a circumstance such as this constitute unlawful discrimination or grounds for a reasonable adjustment should be tested in court.
“For disabled people to travel the distance of others, we need big business to ask themselves if they could be doing more to play their part.”
CAA said Monk was entitled to file a complaint about her treatment with an alternative dispute resolution body, a process BA has signed up to.
A CAA spokesman said: “Passengers who are unhappy with the service provided by an airline or airport can make a complaint through an alternative dispute resolution process.
“Where we find there is a shortcoming in the service provided, we will work with the airport and or airline to make sure improvements are made.”