Months of planning and investment in access improvements appear to have paid off for Heathrow Airport as it welcomed more than 2,000 athletes and officials on its busiest arrivals day for the London 2012 Paralympics.
Airport bosses said about 430 Paralympic wheelchair-users arrived at the airport on Wednesday (22 August), including members of teams from the USA, Canada, Russia, Australia and Thailand.
Mark Hicks, Heathrow’s head of special assistance, said it had been a “fantastic day” and the airport had “exceeded my expectations”.
But he said what the airport had done was not “ground-breaking”, but a result of hard work and listening to disabled customers.
It has also worked with the disabled children’s mobility charity Whizz-Kidz, which had audited the airport’s facilities.
The airport said its investment in access improvements ahead of the games – which included new lifts for bringing wheelchairs up to and down from aircraft, new ramps, five new buggies for transporting disabled passengers through the airport, and three new accessible toilets – would leave a “lasting accessibility legacy” at Heathrow.
But a new onsite wheelchair repair service, available throughout the London 2012 period and mostly targeted at mobility equipment damaged in transit, will not remain within the airport after the Paralympics are over.
Instead, airlines will be given a telephone number they can use to contact a company that specialises in repairs but is not based at the airport.
Hicks said the service had been used just once on Wednesday, to repair a puncture on an athlete’s wheelchair.
He said it was probably not going to be used enough to justify a permanent facility within the airport, although that could change in the future if there was enough demand and airlines agreed to fund it.
Hicks said feedback from airlines, ground-handling crews and Paralympians themselves on Wednesday was very positive.
On one Air China flight there were 40 wheelchair-users, but airport staff managed to help them all off the aircraft within about 30 minutes.
Hicks said the airport had spoken to current and retired Paralympians and other disabled passengers, and had held more than 70 test events to “practice and practice” for coping with the Paralympics.
He also visited the Parapan American Games in Mexico last November – which hosted 1,300 athletes from 24 American countries in 13 Paralympic sports – to watch how Guadalajara International Airport dealt with the arrival and departure of so many disabled passengers.
The only problems reported on Wednesday, he said, were a couple of athletes’ wheelchairs that failed to arrive because of problems at other airports.
He would not say which teams were affected, but said Heathrow lent the athletes temporary wheelchairs, while their own equipment was expected to arrive and be delivered to the athletes’ village within 24 hours.