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Air travel for disabled passengers 'on the up'

Air travel could become smoother and less fraught for disabled passengers if a new charter for airlines and airports is adopted, say ministers. Disabled flyers have long complained of lost or damaged wheelchairs, struggles with access on planes and in airports, and poor customer service.

If adopted, the charter would remove the £2,000 limit on payouts for damaged wheelchairs. It would also enforce better training for airline crews and baggage handlers. In the longer term, the charter would encourage the industry to look at ways to allow people to take their own wheelchairs into aircraft cabins.

More than half (57%) of passengers with a disability say they find flying and using airports difficult, according to a survey by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Accessibility minister Nusrat Ghani said that statistic needed to be addressed and the proposed charter included measures to make "real changes". "We are committed to continuing the progress the industry has already made in making the aviation network truly open to all," she said.

Chris Wood, from campaign group Flying Disabled, said the charter was what they had been working towards. "My aspiration is to have people flying in their own wheelchairs to a destination within two years and it looks as if the UK could lead the way in making this happen," he said.

Frank Gardner, who travels widely for his job as BBC security correspondent, has shared some of his own experiences to highlight the obstacles faced by wheelchair users. In March, on his way back from Ethiopia, he was stranded on an empty aircraft for almost two hours after staff said they had lost his wheelchair.

At the time, he said: "That is your legs gone - it is a basic human right". Mr Gardner, who has used a wheelchair since

being shot in Saudi Arabia in 2004, has spoken of airports having a "casual disregard" for disabled passengers.

Last year a paraplegic athlete dragged himself along the floor through Luton Airport after his self-propelling wheelchair was left behind on a flight.

And in November a man with a spinal problem was taken to hospital after he collapsed at Heathrow Airport while waiting for a booked wheelchair that failed to turn up.

Analysis: Changes welcome but how long to wait?

By BBC disability news correspondent Nikki Fox

When it comes to flying, if you have a disability, physical or invisible, the problems are never ending and progress slow.

This Passenger Charter pinpoints some of the key issues for disabled passengers - increasing the limit on lost or damaged mobility equipment, better training for staff and getting wheelchairs on planes. All will be welcomed by disabled people and those who have been campaigning for change.

What is unclear is how this will all work. The government will have to find a way of getting around the Montreal Convention - a set of rules the aviation industry has had to follow since the 1990s.

One of those being how much an airline has to reimburse a passenger for lost, broken and often expensive, wheelchairs.

There is also no clear indication of how long it will take to see real change.

At the moment, these new measures will feed into the government's aviation strategy, but as yet, no date has been set.

Some airports are already introducing measures to improve the experience for disabled flyers. At Gatwick, one of the airport lounges has been specifically designed for passengers who require assistance and some security lanes are now accessible for passengers with a range of disabilities and staffed by people trained to recognise and respond to their needs.

Gatwick's chief operating officer Chris Woodruffe said "Flying can be a challenge for people with a disability and airports, in partnership with airlines, can change that by improving their practices and infrastructure so that everyone has an equal opportunity to fly."

The government's aviation strategy has been supported by Airlines UK, an association representing 13 airlines, including British Airways, EasyJet and Virgin Atlantic. The charter is part of the government's aviation strategy which will be considered in a 16-week consultation, due to begin this month. The government says the policy will be finalised next year.