Local authorities are working on federal regulations to protect the rights of air passengers with special needs.
The regulations will stipulate the specific services airlines and airports must provide to persons with reduced mobility (PRM), which include the elderly, the physically or mentally disabled and pregnant women.
These services would include ensuring access to wheelchairs, personal assistance, information and medical equipment at the airport and on board the plane.
The PRM steering committee with the Abu Dhabi Airport Company is among several bodies working with the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) to draft the guidelines.
“It will be enforced by the GCAA and we will be the first civil aviation authority in the region,” said Captain Salem Al Khazraji, chairman of the committee.
“It will not only be implemented in Abu Dhabi airport, it will be part of the civil aviation requirements so that all the airports within the UAE, the airlines’ operators should refer to these specific guidelines.”
The GCAA did not specify when the regulations would be completed but Captain Al Khazraji said he hoped to see them in place within the next two years.
Federal Law No29 of 2006 grants general rights to and prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, with special regard to health, employment and education.
There are no regulations to ensure the implementation of these rights during air travel but, instead, most airlines and airports generally follow European and American guidelines, which only officially apply to their carriers or on their territories.
Airlines that are members of the International Air Transport Association must comply with its resolution on the acceptance and carriage of incapacitated passengers.
“We lack the regulations that govern this but I think the compliance is there,” said Saif Al Suwaidi, the director general of the GCAA. “These people have their rights and they must be protected and I believe this is the state’s responsibility.
“We have been in talks with local government bodies and we hope to have formal regulations developed by the end of this effort.”
The lack of regulations, experts said, makes it difficult to hold airlines accountable when they do not provide adequate service.
“Here in the UAE, people might feel that automatically and naturally someone will help a wheelchair user, but sadly that’s not always the case,” said Captain Al Khazraji. “It will be always much better if it is regulated and systemised.”
More than 230,000 passengers with reduced mobility travel through Abu Dhabi International Airport annually, with a majority flying Etihad Airways. Dnata, the subcontractor for all airlines at Dubai International Airport, assisted about 658,000 persons with reduced mobility in the past year.
Most airlines provide an opportunity to request a wheelchair in advance when making a booking but not all passengers are aware of the service.
“Some of the problem comes from the passengers themselves, they don’t notify ahead of time so that staff can prepare,” said Mr Al Suwaidi.
“That is really a big challenge.”
Differences between the American and European guidelines can be confusing to passengers, airports and airlines staff, and makes it important to have streamlined regulations, Capt Al Khazraji said.
“In the US, while booking, you don’t need to mention that you are disabled. You just show up at the airport and tell them and they should handle it. In Europe, no you should,” he said.
“In the US it’s on the spot and if the airline or the airport authorities fail they have set up a law where the passenger can get compensation and claim whatever it is. The airline does face a lot of times – these complaints – and these can be huge claims.”
According to regulations by the US Department of Transport, a carrier should not require passengers with a disability to provide advanced notice as a condition of receiving assistance, with the exception of certain equipment, such as a respirator, incubator or medical oxygen.
EU regulations stipulate airports are responsible for providing assistance as long as notification of the person’s particular needs has been made to the air carrier, its agent or its tour operator at least 48 hours before departure. Airports and airlines in the UAE work similarly.
Last year DMG Events, with the support of several government institutions, launched an initiative called ABILITIESme to tackle the issue of accessibility in the region.
The first conference and exhibition will be held on December 9 this year and will bring policymakers and experts together to explore ways to improve services in the Arabian Gulf.
As an emerging economy, the UAE has many advantages said Prudence Kolong, content and partnership development manager at DMG Events.
“They not only have the capabilities to invest where it matters, but also learn from where other countries before them had challenges,” she said.