We have invited a young Namibian student to speak at a software conference in Cardiff, UK. There are various flight options, none of them direct.

The young man walks with crutches, slowly, and finds it difficult to carry bags (a suitcase would be out of the question for him). He has never travelled by air before.

I think the best option is to get him to Cardiff Airport (CWL) where we can pick him up easily, though there are other options (all also involve international transfers).

My questions:

  • Which airlines and airports have the best reputation for looking after disabled passengers (indeed are there any that are better avoided)?

  • What information should I provide to the airline (and how) to ensure that he will get the assistance he needs?

  • Is it possible or advisable to pay for additional assistance of this kind?

(Likely airlines on the route include KLM via Amsterdam and Qatar via Doha - there are more options via other airports but at the moment I think the advantages of a Cardiff arrival are significant).

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    Your biggest problem is going to be getting him a visa. Both WOMAD and a book-fair failed to get visas for international visitors, and I know an Iranian professor who was unable to attend an international conference in London because he couldn't get a visa :-( – Martin Bonner Aug 13 at 16:42
  • Huh. The KLM and Qatar routes differ by about 2 hours only: 16h 50m versus 18h 45m. – mkennedy Aug 13 at 18:24
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    I recently had to undergo this sort of process when my dad had a stroke - I'm happy to say the airport staff were all very nice and friendly and helped him get along. You can (and should) notify the airliner and they will make special arrangements. – Benjamin Gruenbaum Aug 14 at 12:37
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    Just make sure you avoid Heathrow as it is absolutely useless for wheelchair users. – Ian Turton Aug 14 at 17:10
  • If you look at Frank Gardner's twitter feed, who continues to travel widely after he was paralysed by Saudi militants, the problem is more likely to be at CWL, AMS, or DOH than it is at WDH. I'd keep the number of connections to a minimum, and avoid any connections between different transport modalities. Besides accompanying the man or padding connections, there's not much you can do. – Calchas Aug 14 at 23:00

He will be able to make it. I have seen many people with disabilities travel alone (I am a cabin crewmember)

Let's break it down into a few elements (considering that you are going to use a major airline and not a LCC):

  1. Going to the airplane: almost all airlines/airports do provide free services for people who need help with moving. Many airports even provide golf carts free of charge. All you have to do is to flag the reservation with a wheelchair request. Again, you can do that with almost all airlines online without the need to call someone.
  2. Getting off the airplane: Once the reservation is flagged with a wheelchair request, there should be a wheelchair waiting at the arrival gate.
  3. Luggage: Usually the same person who comes with the wheelchair will take care of that. In other cases, the airport itself will take care of that.
  4. Moving inside the cabin: Crutches are allowed on-board, he can use them in case he needed to move during the flight. I've also seen people who use crutches use the seat-backs instead to give them support until they reach the toilet. However, if crutches are not an option due to small space, many wide bodied airplanes have a small cabin wheelchair, just inform him to ask the cabin crew.
  5. Lavatories: almost all airplane toilets are equipped with handles to support people with disabilities.

As for the "first time traveler" part. There's nothing to worry about, really. Airports have all kinds of signs, boarding passes can be obtained online, anyone with uniform will be able to provide support. Cabin crew onboard will be more than happy to help, safety demonstrations are there. He will be fine.

Make sure to book him a seat near the toilet and in the left side of the airplane (for easier boarding and deplaning), a seat behind a bulkhead (extra legroom) will be perfect. Remember, seats at emergency exits will not be an option for him.

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    I often travel between AMS (Schiphol/Amsterdam which is the KLM hub airport) and the UK, and the in airport support looks the same, whatever company you fly with. EasyJet, (low cost and low service for normal passengers) will get everybody into and out of the planes, with a lift or even a chair that climbs the plane stairs. – Willeke Aug 13 at 16:04
  • @Willeke: the lift is a good option (I have taken it many times with a disabled passenger), the chair which climbs the stairs is epic to say the least (at least the one I saw, where the passenger was almost head down). – WoJ Aug 14 at 11:39
  • I would make sure he does want a wheelchair requested before requesting one. – Bernat Aug 14 at 12:41
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    If he does not want nor need a wheelchair, he/you should not request it. But DO request the golf cart (walking restrictions) and the extra time/get on board early, as those are very useful, even if he can usually walk at a normal speed. – Willeke Aug 14 at 15:08

In addition to the other answers:

  • make sure you minimize the number of connections
  • make sure there is enough time for each connection

That probably leaves you with Qatar going through Doha. KLM markets Amsterdam to Windhoek as a "direct" flight, but it actually stops in Luanda. It appears to be the same aircraft continuing (which isn't always guaranteed) but he may have to get off the plane during the layover.

"Direct" has become a bit of a marketing ploy: some airlines just randomly combine two flight segments and give them the same flight number. It's certainly NOT guaranteed to be non-stop and sometimes it's even a different aircrafts, different gates, different crews and there is no real difference to a regular layover.

  • Good point re. the Luanda stop, I had forgotten about that. It is the same aircraft though, in both directions, and passengers don't disembark (barring unforeseen circumstances). – Daniele Procida Aug 13 at 15:53
  • If the passenger is on a single ticket for both flights and it is flagged with a wheelchair request as mentioned in the other answers, they will get assistance at connecting airports as well as departure & arrival. But as suggested, you might want to avoid tight connection times as the assistance is not always immediately at the aircraft. – Dragonel Aug 13 at 17:48
  • "Direct" and "non stop" have different meanings. It's not really a marketing ploy, it's just that "non stop" has become the norm in the past few decades whereas it used to be normal for a flight to make numerous stops. If you compare to other public transport media, like trains or buses, "direct" doesn't imply it won't stop along the way. If there was a "change of equipment" on a direct bus requiring me to wait at a bus stop, I agree that is a different matter. – Calchas Aug 14 at 23:03
  • @Calchas: YMMV. I was on a "direct" flight from Boston to Vegas and had to spent the night in Denver. By the time the delayed first segment got into Denver, the second segment had left long ago. It was not the same plane, not the same crew and not the same gate. The only thing that made it a "direct" flight was that the airline had given both segments the same flight number. To me, that's a marketing ploy. – Hilmar Aug 16 at 2:59
  • @Hilmar I agree that is particularly egregious. But a midflight "change of gauge" (as that is formally termed) is very unusual outside of North America. – Calchas Aug 16 at 11:26

I think most reputable airlines (KLM, Qatar in your question) will offer proper aid and services to person with mobility limitations.

They will have wheelchairs and personal to give assistance with luggage and everything from boarding, disembarking and/or transferring.

BUT You will need to ASK in ADVANCE for the special service.

  • Thanks for the link to KLM's policy where I read this: "It is not possible to arrange assistance for passengers with a language barrier, fear of flight or first time travellers." That seems a bit unfair! – Daniele Procida Aug 13 at 12:43
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    @DanieleProcida that just means they don't provide assistance to people because they are a first-time traveller, not that first-time travellers aren't entitled to the assistance they could receive if it were their second flight. It's no obstacle to your student receiving appropriate assistance. – Chris H Aug 13 at 12:51
  • "BUT You will need to ASK in ADVANCE for the special service" Not necessarily. You need to be in advance but I always could get assistance at the airport in the cases where it was not requested when checking in or buying tickets (or that the request was lost somewhere) – WoJ Aug 14 at 11:41

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