The following blogpost is being published after BAA, BA and OmniServ refused to take me up on the offer of a meeting to resolve a mess entirely of their making.
"Would you like to upgrade for just £79?" the BA website encouraged. Since I was travelling alone and since it was nearly Christmas (December 23 to be precise) I decided I would. It would be an early Christmas present to myself.
I arrived at Heathrow's Terminal 3 in plenty of time for the 1130 BA850 flight to Warsaw. I imagined that, the security and baggage formalities complete, I would settle into the comfort of the BA lounge, perhaps update my social media feeds, read some emails and texts and even have a festive glass of champagne.
As is the way of these things, assistance was booked prior to travel by contacting BA's call centre. Choosing the option for disabled assistance, my call was transferred to someone who, from their accent, sounded as though they were in India.
"So you want a wheelchair?" she asked.
"No," I explained, "I'm disabled, registered blind if you want to know, but I don't use a wheelchair – not all of us disabled people do, you know."
“Well I don't think I can help you then," she said. I've encountered this before: one has to become insistent, sometimes one has to mention the Disability Discrimination Act and its successor, the 2010 Equality Act and perhaps refer to someone a little more senior on the team. In the end, assistance was booked. First hurdle complete.
When I rocked up at the check-in desk, I mentioned to the agent that help had already been booked and he picked up the phone to the company that provides assistance on behalf of Heathrow's owners, BAA. This company is called Omniserv and its staff can be seen pushing their distinctive purple wheelchairs hither and thither within the confines of the airport.
"No, he's disabled but he doesn't need a wheelchair," the agent explained to his interlocutor. "What's that? You can't refuse assistance – let me speak to a manager."
I have a very good relationship with the diversity team at British Airways – they even very kindly invited me to watch the Paralympics in 2012 with a VIP meal and drinks service thrown in. The company is a member of the Business Disability Forum of which I am proud to be an associate.
I had lunch at Carluccio's in Terminal 5 with representatives from BA, BAA and Omniserv. I was invited to give my views of the service; I repeated my assertion that the three-way process - whereby a passenger books assistance with an airline, who then hands-on responsibility to an airport operator, which then sub-contracts to a service provider - was fatally flawed. I told them that I and my fellow disabled air travellers were fed up with an over emphasis on wheelchair provision; with being treated like baggage instead of a person; with being consigned to the 'special assistance' holding pen instead of being treated with the same respect accorded to other travellers; with staff whose disability awareness is extremely poor and whose disability etiquette is frequently lacking.
The BA staff said that they would quite like to include customers' access preferences or requirements alongside other information stored in the profiles of members of its Executive Club: my meal and seating preferences are already known, why not my access needs on board an aircraft and while travelling through airports? I checked recently to see whether this stunningly obvious feature had been added but received no response.
Omniserv were keen to impress upon me the quality and depth of their disability awareness training. I'm not sure who wrote the series of e-learning modules that staff have to click their way through (just keep ticking another option until you get the answer right) but frankly they should ask for a refund.
Back at check-in, I was asked to take a seat while the agent did his level best to get some sense out of Omniserv. About ten minutes later, a gentleman with a middle-eastern accent approached me – I took him to be an Omniserv employee – and asked if I required a wheelchair. When I told him I did not, he said he was unable to assist me in that case. I again impressed upon the check-in agent the necessity for resolving what was really a storm in a teacup, but one which was rapidly sending my blood pressure sky high.
Another 10 minutes or so elapsed and I then met Jasmine; looking smart in her purple coloured suit and just two days into her new job, she assured me that the situation would now be resolved. When I explained that I had been denied assistance because I wasn't a wheelchair user, she said she thought that "someone is going to be in trouble for this". I told her that I thought that was something of an understatement.
She then took me to the special assistance area (commonly known among disabled air travellers as the 'crip pen') where a supervisor asked me to wait while she entered my details into their computer system. One of the Omniserv operatives, Nathanial, was summoned to assist me. His chief concern seemed to be what he was going to do with his wheelchair if he assisted me without it. "Pick up another one airside," his boss snapped.
With all the to-ing and fro-ing, even using the fast track security lane, I was now left with only 10 minutes or so in the BA lounge – barely time to nip to the loo, pour myself a refreshing glass of water and then head for the gate.
The BA crew on board flight 850 were their usual, helpful selves. Nothing was too much trouble: my seatbelt was fastened and unfastened, my hand luggage stowed and my coat hung up, I was assisted with my food.
Having spent the flight sipping champagne and reading a soothing novel, I was ready for the last leg of my journey through Warsaw's Chopin Airport.
What a difference: the employee who met me was polite, helpful and completely free of condescension. He didn't meet the aircraft with a wheelchair and he quickly showed me where the nearest accessible toilet facility was, collected my luggage from the belt and assisted me through customs to where someone was waiting for me in arrivals. The navy jacket worn by Wojtek and his fellow team members has three distinctive symbols across its back: in addition to the usual wheelchair-using stick man, there was the internationally recognised symbol for hearing and vision impairments. This serves as a useful reminder, both for those being assisted and those offering the assistance. It's something that Omniserv might usefully take on board along with a long, hard look at staff training and other processes that demean and belittle disabled travellers – especially those of us who don't use wheelchairs.
What would I like the companies concerned – BA, Omniserv and BAA - to do about things? Well, they could start by asking me (or any of the other suitably qualified disability equality consultants who are offering their services) to take a close look at what they're doing and suggest ways of improving. Specifically, BA's call centre staff need to understand the distinction between 'disabled' and 'wheelchair-user' – they are not synonymous.
BAA needs to have a much tighter grip on the reins or it needs to provide the service itself: hiding behind contractual niceties does not excuse its outsourcing service to a company that is blatantly not up to the mark. I would like to take a close look at the service level agreement between BAA and Omniserv and check exactly how assistance is specified, what definition is given of disability and what the escalation and referral processes are when things go wrong.
However, it is Omniserv that is at the sharp end of this three-cornered hodgepodge: the company first and foremost, needs to acknowledge its mistakes; it needs to express, in terms, to its staff, contract partners and to the customers of the various airlines who operate out of Heathrow, that disability and wheelchairs are not one and the same; it needs to abandon the use of terms like 'special assistance'; it needs to make its ‘crip pens' more attractive - offer a range of seating, perhaps some complimentary tea, coffee and water, a large-screen TV showing one of the news channels and even Wi-Fi – not unlike the services available in an executive lounge in fact.
Omniserv's disability equality training needs close scrutiny: e-learning modules that allow the user to keep choosing a different option until they get the answer right are no substitute for face-to-face disability equality training delivered by someone with lived experience of disability. Those of us who are in the equality business acknowledge that disability can be a difficult subject that needs careful unpacking: it needs demystifying and an injection of levity in order to leave staff feeling confident that their approach to a disabled person won't result in offence being caused and a complaint being raised.
The quality of staff recruited by Omniserv could also do with scrutiny: I imagine that it's not the most highly-paid job in the world, so it's absolutely crucial that those who are on the front line of this service have the right attitudes from the outset or are sufficiently open-minded to learn the job, given sufficient and appropriate training.
In many respects, the UK is an exemplar when it comes to provision for and attitudes towards people with disabilities. What a pity then that a disabled person visiting the UK for the first time would be given such a dreadful initial impression.