Rights of Disabled Airline Passengers


The rights of disabled passengers is an issue which has attracted some recent attention both on a domestic (UK) level and on an EU level. In particular, carriers should be aware of the grounds for refusal of carriage of disabled passengers so as to avoid any claim for discrimination which may arise from their actions.

The long established legal position is that if a carrier enters into a contract of carriage but subsequently refuses to perform the carriage (before its commencement) then the carrier will be liable for breach of contract. However, in line with IATA recommendations, most airlines include in their conditions of carriage a right to refuse carriage to a passenger on the basis of "reasonable discretion" in line with specified circumstances. One such reservation is where the physical state of the passenger is such that he requires special assistance, causes discomfort to other passengers, or involves any hazard or risk to himself or to other persons. The approach must therefore be a subjective one. While few such cases exist in the UK, the law in this area is somewhat more developed in the US. These cases generally involve instances where one passenger has been violent in some way but, in one case, it was held that it was reasonable to refuse carriage to an infirm 92 year old whom it was thought would require excessive assistance from flight attendants during carriage.

On an EU level, the European Disability Forum recently criticised carriers for unjustifiably purporting to rely on security reasons to discriminate against disabled passengers by denying boarding or restricting seat allocation. They allege that in some cases disabled passengers are even required to sign a declaration that they will not trouble other passengers, which is blatantly discriminatory. Notwithstanding this criticism the vast majority of airlines (and airports) have signed up to a voluntary European Air Passenger Rights Charter which includes provisions relating to better access to facilities for disabled passengers. The Charter covers a range of non-legally binding commitments to deliver a sufficient standard of service to disabled air passengers. In a nutshell, the consultation paper states that if a person with reduced mobility requires a booking and has notified his/her needs in advance (within the specified time) an airline will be forbidden from refusing that booking or subsequently refusing carriage except for valid "safety or operational" reasons...

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