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Transport / Four-hour flight delay and no ramp leads to ‘shocking’ experience for elderly NHS passengers in wheelchairs

Photo © Colin Smith (cc-by-sa/2.0)

THE DAUGHTERS of two elderly NHS patients have spoken about their mothers’ experience flying home to Shetland from Aberdeen last week after stints in hospital – with a four-hour delay compounded with the pair having to walk up the steps onto the plane despite using wheelchairs in the airport.

They said there was no lift or ramp provided for them at Aberdeen Airport last Thursday (11 April) as they were boarding their flight to Sumburgh.

It came on a day where there were also cancelled Loganair flights to and from Shetland, in addition to the delays.

Chair of Shetland Islands Council’s (SIC) environment and transport committee Moraig Lyall said last week that the community was “being let down regularly” by cancellations and delays.

“A major improvement in a short timeframe is essential to restore confidence in using the airline for important journeys,” the councillor said.

The flight with the two wheelchair users from Aberdeen arrived in Sumburgh four hours late. The scheduled arrival was 3.50pm but it only landed at 7.50pm.

Lynne Peart was on the flight with her 74-year-old mum, who was in a wheelchair after being south at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.

She said there was “little to no information” given to waiting passengers, and no food vouchers were provided until she asked.

Peart said they were advised that some planes had been in “heavy maintenance” and that a couple of others had suffered technical issues.

She said when passengers did finally board the plane there was no ramp or ambulift for the special assistance wheelchair users, despite it being requested in advance, so they had to walk up.

“Neither of them were able for it,” Peart said. “They had known for hours that there were two ladies in wheelchairs to go on the flight.”

She said it was “shocking treatment” from start to finish.

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Gillian Bain’s 71-year-old mum was returning to Shetland after staying in hospital for three and a half weeks – during which time she had been on a life support machine.

She said her mother was due to fly on an air ambulance plane but that was changed to the Loganair flight due to there being a lack of space in the Gilbert Bain Hospital in Lerwick.

This already had made her anxious but Bain said she reassured her mum that there would be assistance in the airport.

She added that her mum “didn’t think she was going to make it” up the steps to the plane.

“I think it’s terrible for somebody in a wheelchair to face that,” Bain said.

She also said there was “no information” given to passengers while they waited in the airport.

A spokesperson for Loganair said: “We unfortunately encountered technical issues on our flight from Aberdeen to Sumburgh on Thursday which resulted in a four-hour delay to the service.

“We understand the impact this has on customers who are relying on us as a lifeline service and apologise for the inconvenience caused.

“We are working hard to minimise disruption to our services including adding additional resilience throughout the operation.”

A spokesperson for the company involved with special assistance at Aberdeen Airport, ABM, said: “We understand the importance of delivering special assistance services with efficiency, respect, and care.

“In this instance, it was not possible to use an Ambulift due to aircraft compatibility, and the Aviramp usually provided by the ground handling team was unserviceable.

“An alternative solution was offered by the ABM team, however, the passengers preferred to use the stairs.

“We acknowledge that Ambulifts are often the preference for customers and we strive to provide this whenever possible; unfortunately this was not possible on this occasion.”

However, the family of the two women dispute that an alternative was offered.

It is not the first time Shetland passengers have faced issues with boarding assistance when flying.

Photo: Ronnie Robertson

Back in November a family spoke about their “humiliating” experience when their six-year-old son had to be carried off a Loganair plane down the steps in his wheelchair at Glasgow Airport because there was no-one available to drive ambulift or ramp vehicles.

Regarding criticism around a lack of communication when things do go wrong, the spokesperson for Loganair added: “We are looking at where specific improvements can be made to communication with our third parties and customers.”

Separately there was a flight from Aberdeen to Sumburgh early on the Thursday morning cancelled for technical reasons.

This was the flight which meant a defence solicitor was unable to travel to Shetland to attend a trial at Lerwick Sheriff Court in person, with a videolink having to be used instead.

There was speculation on social media that the plane was then used for a charter flight to Shetland but that was strongly denied by a Loganair spokesperson.

New Loganair CEO Luke Farajallah said last month that restoring reliability was his first priority in the job.

He admitted the airline had fallen short in the past, with a fleet replacement programme one factor in this.

But SIC’s environment and transport committee chair councillor Moraig Lyall, who spoke to Farajallah last week on the topic, said there needs to be improvement fast.

“Five weeks into the job he was candid enough to admit that he was surprised at the level of operational resilience that he inherited with the company, in particular the shortage of planes and pilots, describing an over optimistic approach that had been taken previously,” Lyall said.

“He said improving this was his number one priority, that it was both urgent and fixable and that their plans should see an improvement in weeks, not months.

“I have the promise of a face to face meeting shortly and an improvement plan that we will be able to use as a yardstick to measure progress.”

The issue of NHS patients enduring difficulties and delays comes after Farajallah told Shetland News last month that discussions were planned with health boards on travel reliability.

Speaking after a recent visit to Shetland, Scottish health secretary Neil Gray said there had been positive talks on the matter with the health service.

He told Shetland News he also had conversations within government on the issue with transport secretary Fiona Hyslop.

It comes after concern over Loganair’s reliability was raised in a meeting of NHS board chairs earlier this year.

Gray said: “My understanding is that the health board has also had positive conversations in this case with Loganair around what would make the difference, and what would help in terms the patient transport elements, and I’m encouraged there is that positive engagement there from Loganair, and an understanding of the need for improvements.”

The MSP added that having grown up in Orkney, “I understand how critical it is for those connections to be reliable, in order for those communities to be viable and for people to have equitable access to in this case healthcare”.

Speaking last month, Farajallah said he was “completely on the side of the NHS” and said the airline wants to make patients’ journeys to recovery “faster and smoother, and not create more stress”.

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