When I first started travelling to Sofia I used to fly Air Bulgaria from Gatwick. Once, having answered the call for those needing assistance to come forward now, I stepped forward and did not get quite the help I expected. What I got was a good telling off because the Air Bulgaria official thought “You are a liar. There is nothing wrong with you. Sit down immediately”. Passengers were boarded. The gate was closed and the official departed. I was abandoned, so I made the walk of shame to find the plane alone, being rescued by a man in ear muffs who, spotting the cane, got the general idea that all was not well on the old eyesight front.
Many years ago I realised that, if I was to live into old age, the white cane, was essential in airports. It came about because a tried and tested technique of shoulder serving a likely looking passenger failed me. I found myself running from the terminal to the plane, in heavy rain late at night at Belfast airport. I was effectively running freestyle towards the runway. A man with ping pong bats intercepted me and shouted “Are you blind?” As he marched me back towards the terminal, I heard myself say, “No, I just can’t see the plane.”
I was in Heathrow not so long ago. My British trained escort came to collect me and I said I’d like to swing by the ladies loo en route to the gate. Well that did it. “Oh My God,” he yelled. “She gotta go toilet.” I scratched my head.
“I should say that a bit louder if I were you,” I said. “ I don’t think everyone quite heard you.”
He heaved in his breath and stuck out his chest. “She gotta go toilet.” He really gave it some welly.
“It’s Ok. I can manage to pass water unaided and I can wipe my own bottom.”
Up went the shoulder and out came the bellowing sound of relief. “It’s OK. She can do toilet on her own,” and off we set.
Luton’s not much better. Airlines run up penalties there because they spend so long on the tarmac waiting for passenger assistance. It makes no odds when or how assistance is booked, a culture of “blame the passenger” prevails. Bus loads of cross travellers have twitched in passive aggression as security demands no one can board until I have been removed from the plane. That can regularly take up to and hour and a half.
On a blistering summer day, after a very tedious wait and plane crew change at Luton, assistance arrived and demanded to know,” Yeah, you got a Romeo?”
“Do you mean this nice lady sitting here?”
“Walker? Non walker?”
I couldn’t help myself. “it might be easier if you talked to me since I’m right here.”
“I’ll talk to you if I need to,” was the surly reply.
I was once instructed to get into a wheelchair. “It’ll be easier,”
“For whom” I asked?
These days Bulgarian Airport assistance is the best I have encountered. It far outstrips the British experience. I am treated with courtesy and respect. I am not kept waiting and everyone is polite. No one shouts at me or about me. Varna airport gets my vote for disabled traveller assistance. I love it.
We hear so much criticism about all those nasty foreigners importing their nasty foreign ways, but British airports could learn a thing or two from our Bulgarian cousins, about how to treat blind and disabled travellers.