Special Assistance at Heathrow Airport

I wrote this letter to Omni Serv, the contractor responsible for providing special assistance services at London Heathrow Airport, on 20th June 2011:

I am writing to complain about an experience that I had with your special assistance services at London Heathrow (Terminal 3) yesterday, 19th June 2011.

I was travelling into London with my grandmother, aged 86, on [flight details removed]. We had requested wheelchair assistance for her. This is what happened:

Upon leaving the aircraft we were taken to the main holding area for special assistance passengers. There, we were greeted with chaos. There were about 25 passengers already there, waiting for assistance. Listening to them, some had been waiting for almost an hour already. There were no wheelchairs or wheelchair operators in sight. The manager at the desk was, unfortunately, nonchalant and dismissive towards anyone that approached her, and only served to make the already tired passengers more frustrated. There were no clear instructions given to anybody, and it was only after waiting for several minutes that we realised we were supposed to present a boarding card to the manager to get on the list to be assigned a wheelchair.

There was a lot of shouting and general confusion in the waiting area. Whenever wheelchair operators did appear (it seemed there were only three or four altogether), they wasted a lot of time chatting and idling before taking the next passenger.

My grandmother and I waited patiently for an hour. During this time 8 of the 20 passengers that had arrived before us were taken by wheelchair (and more had arrived in the mean time). It was clear that at that rate we would be waiting for at least another hour. Plenty of people were getting very frustrated, understandably so, but the manager was once again dismissive. There may have been a shortage of wheelchair operators, and legimitate reasons for this, but it was the perceived lack of concern and urgency from the staff that were present that was most disappointing. Nobody bothered to explain that there was going to be a delay, or why. Anyone who attempted to ask was rather rudely asked not to interfere.

Eventually the manager approched me and suggested that I take my grandmother myself, using a spare wheelchair that was available (there was no operator). I might have agreed if we did not have to collect checked-in luggage — it would have been impossible for me to manage both a wheelchair and a baggage trolley. So, she then suggested that we had better walk.

So, after waiting for an hour for a wheelchair, we ended up walking. I hope you will appreciate that for an 86-year-old with impaired mobility, walking the distances involved at Heathrow Airport is not a small matter. However we were presented with no other option, and had we waited would have been delayed by at least 2 hours.

I will reiterate that the most disappointing part of our experience was not the delay, but the attitude of the Omni Serv staff. Had they been more polite and communicative, the passengers would have been a lot more accommodating. In my opinion this level of service reflects very poorly on Heathrow Airport, particularly as a gateway into London ahead of the 2012 Olympics. I hope you will take this complaint seriously so that others do not receive such an unpleasant welcome to London in future.

Sincerely,

Samir Shah

This complaint was written on the back of EC Regulation 1107/2006, which places responsibility on airports to ensure that passengers with reduced mobility are given reasonable assistance in getting around the airport. I felt that these responsibilities were not met in this case.

I received no response after two weeks. I then copied the same message to Heathrow Airport. I received this in reply:

Dear Mr Shah,

Thank you for contacting us following your journey through Heathrow with your Grandmother.

I am sorry you had a poor experience. I have contacted Omniserv about your complaint and asked that they prioritise a response.

Should you require any further assistance please do not hesitate to contact me.

Two months and several follow-up emails later: no response. During this period I contacted the Civil Aviation Authority, who referred me to the Equality and Human Rights Commission as the body in charge of handling complaints of this type. The EHRC were very helpful: they explained what rights my grandmother had, and how I needed to pursue the matter if I did not receive a satisfactory response to my complaint. They said I should send my complaint by mail, recorded delivery, so that I had proof that it had been received (apparently email still does not suffice). If I failed to receive a response after 30 days from receipt, I could take further action through the EHRC, and if necessary, take the matter to court.

It was never my intention to go to court — my grandmother did not suffer any lasting injury as a result of this experience — and in any case it was more the manner in which we were treated that I found unnacceptable. The handlers were very rude. However I did feel that some response was warranted, and that failure to receive one was a sign that both Heathrow Airport and Omni Serv do not take customer complaints seriously. So I sent a formal letter, and waited.

A full two and half months after my original complaint (and after the 30 days had expired), I received the following from Omni Serv (in a Microsoft Word document):

Dear Mr Shah,

Firstly our apologies for the delay in our response to you, however this letter is to confirm that we have now looked into the issues you have raised and we would like to apologise to you for the level of service that you feel Mrs Shah received through London Heathrow.

The level of service received by Mrs Shah was not up to our usual standard, this was due to the fact that the day on which she arrived was an exceptionally busy one for Omni Serv, nevertheless the way she was dealt with by the Omni Serv host was not appropriate, both in her manner and having not offered baggage assistance. The member of staff concerned has been reminded of the level of service expected.

We apologise for the poor experience she had when arriving at Heathrow and as a gesture of our apology we would like to send her some flowers. We would like to ask therefore that you provided us with her address in order to make the necessary arrangements.

Finally, we would like to suggest that when making future travel arrangements through London Heathrow that she contact our office in advance to ensure that she receives the appropriate and expected assistance.

The flowers, incidentally, never arrived. The flowers arrived a month after I gave Omni Serv my grandmother’s address.

My advice to anyone who has had an unpleasant experience with the special assistance services at Heathrow is to contact the Equality and Human Rights Commission. They will tell you how to make a formal complaint to Heathrow Airport, and if the complaint is not addressed, they will assist in taking further action.