Heathrow, the host airport of London 2012, has dramatically improved accessibility for passengers with disabilities due to the huge investments it made during the Paralympic Games. So writes Tom Degun in Inside the Games. The peak arrivals day for the Paralympics came on August 22 when around 2,100 athletes and officials came through Heathrow, with the airport handling over 2,800 wheelchairs during the Games. During the Olympics and Paralympics, more than 75,000 journeys were made by Paralympians, Olympians and team officials. As well as the 2,800 wheelchairs, the airport handled 5,000 oversized bags including canoes, javelins, bikes and pole vault poles; 1,300 firearms plus ammunition; and 20,000 members of the media. The Paralympics naturally presented a different and greater operational challenge than the Olympics given the complexity of handling increased numbers of Passengers with Reduced Mobility (PRMs). The challenge during the Paralympics was the complexity of passengers’ needs rather than the volume of passengers and bags, meaning it wasn’t necessary to use the temporary Games Terminal for departing Paralympians. However, 300 volunteers waved off each Paralympian with a Guard of Honour bidding them farewell.
“The Heathrow team has spent the last seven years preparing for this challenge,” explained Nick Cole, head of London 2012 planning at Heathrow Airport. “We conducted rehearsals to test our processes and procedures, and have spent more than £20 million ($32 million/€25 million) in preparing for the Games. “This includes installing new ramps and lifts to manage the number of passengers with mobility disabilities using Heathrow, and we have given extra training for our staff and volunteers on the safe way to handle specialist wheelchairs.”
In order to meet the challenge posed by the Paralympic Games, Heathrow partnered with mobility charity Whizz-Kidz. The charity offered first-hand, expert guidance on how to further improve the airport’s accessibility. It audited Heathrow’s terminal facilities and suggested a number of improvements, including increasing the number of specialist lifts, known as ambilifts, which are used to help PRMs embark and disembark aircraft. Heathrow now has 12 ambilifts – more than any other airport in Europe.
The charity also recommended obtaining 13 scissor lifts and installing 100 new ramps to help load and unload wheelchairs, upgrading and increasing its fleet of buggies for transporting PRMs through the airport to a total of 60 vehicles, installing four new lifts to help return wheelchairs to the aircraft door, increasing the number of lightweight aisle chairs and self-propelled wheelchairs to 38 and 20 respectively, an on-site wheelchair repair service and installing new accessible toilets. “These improvements provide a positive lasting legacy with an enhanced level of accessibility for PRMs,” added Cole. “We are very passionate about this and this dedication is becoming infectious across the airport.”
1,000 volunteers were recruited from local communities to assist travellers and Cole added that they had a hugely positive impact, which he hopes will be continued after the Games. “We would like to have permanent volunteers, local people, working with us to welcome passengers to London and provide the best possible passenger experience.” The focus now is on the London 2012 legacy and many of the improvements at London-Heathrow will continue to benefit passengers for years to come.