Disabled passengers arriving at Heathrow airport are being forced to wait up to two hours for help in disembarking aircraft, the aviation regulator has said.
The west London hub is one of four airports where the Civil Aviation Authority judged the service for wheelchair users and other disabled passengers to be poor . The others were Manchester, East Midlands and Exeter.
A survey of almost 1,200 passengers who have used Heathrow’s assistance service found that 62% rated it as poor or very poor.
The CAA recorded instances of passengers not being met on board arriving aircraft and not being treated with dignity and respect. On some occasions passengers were encouraged to make their own way through the airport because of a lack of staff or equipment.
The CAA’s consumer enforcement manager, James Fremantle, said: “There have been a number of occasions where people have had to wait one to two hours on arrival at the airport. Our view is … disabled passengers shouldn’t wait any longer than other passengers.”
More than a million passengers requiring special assistance travel through Heathrow each year – more than any other European airport. Its assistance service is provided by the US-based firm OmniServ.
The executive director of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Melanie Field, said: “For disabled passengers to be treated as second-class citizens and having to wait hours to leave a plane is not only bad service, it is discriminatory.
“Being able to travel independently and safely is one of the biggest concerns for disabled people. Our airports are often the first impression travellers have of our country. They must improve their service.”
The CAA found that some disabled travellers using East Midlands airport had suffered unacceptably long waiting times on arrival, particularly last summer. Manchester and Exeter were found to have failed to carry out consultations with disability organisations.
All four airports have pledged to make improvements, and the CAA said it would monitor them closely to ensure improvements were made in the coming months.
The report found that 20 airports provided good assistance, and six were described as very good.
The CAA’s director of consumers and markets, Richard Moriarty, said: “Our surveys, along with the airports’ own studies, have shown high levels of satisfaction among disabled passengers and we have seen some examples of excellent service where assistance is well organised and delays are minimal.
“However, East Midlands, Exeter, Heathrow and Manchester have fallen short of our expectations and we have secured commitments from them to make improvements.”
The transport secretary, Chris Grayling, said he was encouraged that “the overwhelming majority” of UK airports provided a good service for disabled passengers, and he was determined to push the aviation industry to do more.
Heathrow said in a statement that it was “extremely disappointed” with the CAA’s findings, apologised to customers affected and pledged to address the issues raised.
The said it would amend its contract for providing passenger assistance to ensure waiting times were reduced.
A spokeswoman for OmniServ said the company was “investing significant sums in staff training” and would “continue evaluating our performance … to provide the best service to all of Heathrow’s passengers”.
More than 3 million journeys were made by passengers requesting extra help in the UK last year, up 66% on the figure for 2010.