Air travel can be a stressful experience and even more so if you or a family member has a disability! So what is like Flying from Southend Airport with a disability?
Airports have Special Assistance put in place according to CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) regulations.
I met with two members of the London Southend Airport (LSA) team to discuss special assistance and have a tour of the airport. I was unsure if a small regional airport would struggle with special assistance compared to a major airport and I was ready to pick up on any failings, but I am pleased to say that I was extremely impressed.
Of course I approach this post from the point of view of a wheelchair user but I will also be mentioning hidden disabilities and travellers who suffer from Anxiety.
I have suffered from severe anxiety since the late 80’s and so I understand how it feels to travel when feeling this way and back then I wasn’t physically disabled!
Booking Special Assistance
When you book your holiday/flight with either the airline, online website or travel agent you need to do so with at least 48 hours notice. The airline will then notify London Southend Airport 24 hours prior to your flight.
But London Southend airport goes one step further.
They allow people who are anxious about their departure from the airport to visit prior to their flight. I think this is incredible and I applaud it, it is often the unknown that can push the anxiety levels high and so a visit where your departure is explained and you get to see where you go, will go towards making the journey less stressful.
Arriving at London Southend Airport
This is the main area where I have heard people complaining about the airport, drop off points outside the airport are non existent and the prices at the Short Stay car park nearest the terminal costs £3 for up to 10 minutes, £6 for 10 to 30 minutes and £9.00 for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
There is a van that constantly patrols the road leading up to and around the airport and signs warn you that stopping will result in a £100 fine and this has upset people.
However you can park for 15 minutes for free in the Long Stay 3 car park and walk into the south end of the terminal and the Disabled Parking bays in Long Stay 3 are the closest Long Stay disabled bays to the terminal.
If you require assistance , pressing the assistance button and alerting them to your requirement as you enter the Short Stay car park will result in you having a longer time to drop off than the shortest 10 minute period.
The assistance button can be used at any of the car parks upon entry or at the ticket machine if you require assistance to get to the terminal!
Walking distances and times
- Long Stay 1 car park to check in concourse 2 minutes – 115 metres / 378 feet / 126 yards
- Long Stay 2 car park to check in concourse 3 minutes – 269 metres / 881 feet / 294 yards
- Long Stay 3 car park to check in concourse 4 – 5 minutes – 246 metres / 808 feet / 269 yards
- Short Stay car park to check in concourse 2 minutes – 115 metres / 378 feet / 126 yards
- Check in concourse to security 2 minutes
- Security to departure lounge 1 minute
- Departure lounge to furthest aircraft stand 2 minutes
- Arrivals hall to Short Stay or Long Stay 1 car parks 3 minutes
- Arrivals hall to Long Stay 2 or 3 car parks 5 – 6 minutes
The Greater Anglia train station opposite the terminal that is on the Southend Victoria to Liverpool Street line has ramps for wheelchair users to access the trains.
There are lifts either side of the platform at the train station meaning that it is fully accessible but again this would need to be booked in advance.
The glass fronted terminal is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of a major airport, admittedly I visited mid week in February but still the bright and airy terminal goes a long way towards helping to keep anxiety levels low.
At the North arrivals end of the terminal as you enter is a WHSmith and Check in is at the South end (no pun intended) or the left as you enter and for special assistance the Ticket Desk is just to the right as you enter the Departures Doors which are automatic.
There is reserved seating for disabled passengers and there was 12 wheelchairs lined up, which for an airport of this size is amazing.
There are two disabled toilets in the entrance concourse, however neither are equipped with a height adjustable changing bench and a hoist. The team at LSA have been in discussion with Changing Places website regarding this provision.
With Special Assistance you are fast tracked through check in and baggage drop and will have someone to help you check in if needed.
You then take one of two lifts or stairs to go upstairs to security. The lifts are narrow and so using them in an electric wheelchair or scooter would mean you don’t have room to turn inside the lift!
The first is a check point where they check to make sure you have a valid boarding card and then round the corner to security.
Yep the part where we all manage to look guilty even if we aren’t!
Again we were fast tracked through security and they were amazing and so professional with great communication skills and it shows that the staff have had awareness training.
I placed my coat, phone, wallet and camera in a tray and that was sent through to be X-Rayed, but being a wheelchair user I couldn’t go through the walk through scanner and so it was a manual check for me.
First I was asked if I had anything in my pockets and the pockets that hang from the front of my cushion.
Of course I forgot that I have a small torch and so that was passed through for x-ray and then he explained he would need to do a check to make sure I wasn’t concealing anything.
They asked was it okay to touch me, if I had any pain or problems that would make the search more painful, but even though we call it a pat down, it is very gentle and was just a case of him running his hands over my arms, my torso and legs and then a basic check of the wheelchair. He asked was it okay to touch me.
He then lightly swabbed my hands, the waist band of my trousers & my trainers and explained that this tests for the chemical compounds found in explosives.
I then went and waited for the tray to be passed through with our belongings and with that I was through security.
On the same level as security over looking the departures is the SKYLIFE Lounge, this costs £22.50 Adult / £14.00 Child on the day or £20.00 Adult/ £14.00 Child if you pre book.
Now whilst this does add to the cost of your holiday, it is amazing for someone who suffers from anxiety as the SKYLIFE Lounge is, well it was pure tranquillity.
Also for me where pain is an issue, it would mean I could relax on a settee before my flight and this would be crucial if the flight was delayed.
You can help yourself to drinks and they had a good selection of food from fresh fruit to pastries and even a pancake machine and meals.
It is lit beautifully creating a very relaxed atmosphere, it has plenty of comfortable arm chairs and settees and also plugs for charging or running your devices.
This would be my choice if we flew from LSA, yes it adds extra to your holiday but as someone who suffers from anxiety and chronic pain, this would make flying from LSA a lot easier.
There are again toilets on this level next to the SKYLIFE Lounge with a disabled toilet in between them.
Two lifts are available to take you back down into the rear of the terminal where the gates for departure are located.
Again the departures like the entrance concourse, is light and open and here you have a view of the stands and runway. This will also help to minimise anxiety as it doesn’t feel at all claustrophobic.
A wide range outlets are available but it doesn’t have the feel of the shopping mall like areas of the large airports.
Again I have to admit that I visited mid week and the staff at LSA said that Thursday and Friday evening can get a bit lively with the Departures area having a more of a party feel as people prepare to depart for the weekend.
I don’t like airports, I find them claustrophobic, too busy for my liking and poorly laid out but I think LSA had the benefit of starting from scratch rather than having to adapt and extend an old airport and also by dealing with fewer flights and customers LSA has been able to create a more relaxed and calmer experience and if like me anxiety is an issue, it makes a huge difference.
The departure gates are at the rear of the building against the glass overlooking the aircraft stands. LSA doesn’t have any air bridges and so you can see the aircraft arrive and depart.
For me that would be helpful, but I expect that some may like the hidden view where you walk straight into the aircraft cabin without seeing the aircraft.
Wheelchair users as well as those with limited mobility have two options to board the aircraft and those receiving special assistance will be boarded first but you can opt to board last and this must be requested in advance.
The Aviramp allows wheelchair users to wheel up to the aircraft door but I am told that it is very tight and so some chairs may struggle with the turns but for me this would be the preferable option.
It is also an option for anyone who would struggle with aircraft steps for a number of reasons.
The Ambulift raises via a scissor lift mechanism and has seats and room for wheelchairs. It is a case of just accessing it via a ramp and then once it has been raised, you can board the aircraft.
Arrivals is through the North airside end of the terminal and again if you have booked special assistance you will be fast tracked through immigration, baggage claim and customs.
You will be assisted with your baggage and if required helped right through to the car park or train station.
My one quibble with LSA is that there is only one disabled toilet in arrivals and this doubles up as a baby changing facility. So if you was unable to use the toilet on the flight as some wheelchair users are, so needed to go when you land, well you might be out of luck as parents may also be wanting to get a nappy change in for junior before the next stage of their journey!
London Southend airport works with not only disability organisations but also with people who have a disability to improve their special assistance and to iron out any issues that may be causing issues.
They also are very aware of the issues facing people who have a hidden disability and offer a discreet blue wristband for people with a hidden disability and their carer and or family.
These informs staff at the various stages of departure from LSA that the person has a hidden disability and requires assistance.
So all in all London Southend Airport is extremely disabled friendly, it is accessible and the staff are very friendly and have good communication skills.
Yes there are still a few issues to be addressed but this isn’t because they are turning a blind eye to it. The main issues that I came across was the absence of a height adjustable adult-sized changing bench & hoist system in the disabled toilets & only having a single disabled toilet in arrivals that doubles up as baby changing.
So my initial query of ‘Can a small airport offer good special assistance?’ has been answered and it is a firm ‘Yes’ and once the disabled toilets issue is sorted, LSA will be a Special Assistance dream!