We flew from London Luton to Paphos, Cyprus in July 2019. We are a family with special needs and these are our personal experiences.
Our experience is that London Luton Airport is making a good effort to support passengers with disabilities and hidden disabilities, however, these fell short of our expectation.
Luton airport had just recently introduced and trained staff on the sunflower symbol to subtly identify invisible conditions, including autism, and we were interested to test this. Sadly, we were underwhelmed by the results! We had mixed experiences at Luton Airport.
Now, we are not your average family: We were travelling to Cyprus as a family of 6 – my 14-year-old son, 13- year-old daughter who is on the diagnosis pathway for ASD and anxiety, 20-year-old son and 11-year-old who also both have autism and my husband and I (also on the spectrum).
I also have Fibromylagia and have associated mobility issues (I hold a Blue Badge) and my youngest son uses a wheelchair as his safe space when we are out and about for anything beyond quick trips.
Yes, we are a beautifully quirky family with varied needs!
We booked special assistance for my youngest son and teenage daughter when we booked the flights for our trip to Cyprus to visit my mum, who lives there.
Getting to the airport
We had decided to forego driving and parking at the airport in our car and booked a minibus taxi. This was for a number of reasons:
• Comfort: We had a very early flight and thought it would be nice to have a relaxing ride without anyone having to drive.
• Space: We would have plenty of room for a wheelchair and luggage.
• Experience: We had a bad experience with valet parking at this airport in the past.
• Cost: A return trip by taxi from our home to the airport and back at the end of our trip (22 miles each way) was cheaper than booking any of the on-site Luton carparks that didn’t require a bus transfer.
There is disabled parking in the multi-storey car park close-ish to the airport, if you have a blue badge. Access to the airport is then via a lift and a corridor then outside past the bus station.
The drop-off zones, where our taxi could drop us off, even for Blue Badge holders, are still quite a walk to the terminal with some steep slopes. The route takes you past the coaches and buses. It’s often busy and noisy (, an easy trigger) and we’ve found whatever the weather it’s often cold and windy.
At London Luton Airport
Arriving in the terminal, we headed straight for the Special Assistance desk as advised when booking.
My son and daughter were issued with sunflower stickers, and we were told what gate we would be leaving from. We were directed to a designated Special Assistance lane to hand over our bags and were told that when we’d done that to go to the Fast Track lane for security; then head to the gate ASAP.
Lone travellers or people who prefer more assistance can book a fully-escorted special assistance service at no extra cost to them. This can include porter service and electric buggy lifts to gates.
The free Fast Track service on offer to those who book Special Assistance is fantastic, in principle, if you or someone travelling with you has issues with queuing and/or crowds.
Unfortunately, it’s the second time we’ve used this service and for the second time in a row we were faced with misinformed, undertrained staff. When we got to the Fast Track entrance the member of staff there seemed confused and distrusting, even when we showed her the sunflower badges and told her Special Assistance had sent us.
Meanwhile, people who’d paid for Fast Track were piling up behind us and we felt embarrassed as if we were trying to cheat the system. We were, eventually, allowed through, but my stress levels were very high by that stage
The fast track lane took us to an area of security which was a little quieter than the other lanes.
Security checks and security staff at Luton are usually pretty good, in our experience, and I was not disappointed. Once again they were very considerate especially when it came to screening my son in his wheelchair.
Airport Security staff did swab his hands and X-rayed his cuddly toys, but I had time to explain to him what was happening. They didn’t make him get out of his chair even though I explained that he physically could.
My daughter was also handled sensitively and we weren’t rushed through.
Unfortunately, by the time we got into the departures lounge, we realised the sunflower stickers were already falling off and refusing to re-stick properly. We hadn’t made it to the gate yet.
At the gate we reported to the staff and had our two special assistance recipients’ names checked off a list. Given a choice, our youngest decided he would prefer to use the lift in his wheelchair than have to walk across the asphalt and up the steps.
The airport staff allowed us all to stay together, which was a major plus for us. We find it very stressful to be separated in travel situations.
It’s so useful to have priority boarding: It’s quieter and less stressful, as it gives us a chance to be sorted and seated before the main rush of people board. Trying to settle an autistic child while impatient passenger tussling for their seats push past is very difficult. (We always aim to be last off a plane too to avoid the same issue.)
On board EasyJet
We were flying with EasyJet and special mention must go to the staff on our flight who gave us a lovely welcome as we boarded.
The EasyJet crew responded very quickly on learning of my youngest son’s ear pain on take-off, providing us with a few drops of Olbas Oil on a cotton ball in a bag for him to inhale which really helped. He was really not keen on the smell, but quickly realised it was easing his ear pain.
During the flight, while taking him to the toilet, we hit turbulence and were asked to sit and strap into the crew seats as it was too bumpy to head back to our seats. Staff returned a couple of times to check on us and reassure us.
When we returned to our seats they came and praised his bravery and offered him a treat from the trolley to reward him. After landing, he was also allowed to visit the flight deck.
Special Assistance at Luton Arrivals, Airside
On our return trip, unfortunately, we had a very bad experience at Luton Airport. There were more people requiring the lift and we were told that only one person could accompany my son in his wheelchair in the lift.
Staff operating the lift seemed a little disorganised. The door was left open leaving us shivering. My son was not allowed to get into his wheelchair even though it was in the lift when we got into it.
We were driven to a different entrance to Luton airport, to the one the other passengers were at. So we effectively “lost” the rest of my family. I repeatedly asked where we would be able to rejoin them and was basically ignored. I was increasingly concerned about my daughter as I knew she would be anxious about us being separated.
My own anxiety was very difficult to control and my son was starting to panic by the extended lift ride.
Special Assistance dropped us off in the very crowded passport control and I could not see my family anywhere!
Luckily, I had phone service and I managed to describe where we were waiting. Meanwhile, the rest of my family, including my daughter (who also had special assistance booked), had to queue in busy hallways and then fight their way through crowds to get to us.
I remembered the previous occasion arriving at Luton Airport having quite a queue before reaching passport control. We’d opted, that time, not to use the Special Assistance transport and we didn’t have the use of the SEN buggy he used until baggage collection. My son could not cope and it was very difficult to support him both physically and mentally.
In our experience, Special Assistance at arrivals at Luton Airport is not suitable for people with autism, with or without mobility issues.
Once we reached Special Assistance in the Immigration Hall we were whisked through.
I feel that the section from plane to passport control needs a complete overhaul to accommodate passengers with special needs. I also think one of the most important considerations for those planning Special Assistance
services is to keep families together (whatever the size of the family), throughout their transit through the facility.
Our Overall Opinion of How Disabilty-friendly Luton Airport is:
What Luton Airport and staff do well
- Facilities: Designated, staffed Special Assistance bag drops
- Procedures: Being allowed to stay together from check-in to boarding. (Although, this may not always be available, as I gather, it depends on how many people need the lift.)
- Staff: Security staff who allowed me time to explain the process to the children.
- Friendly, helpful Special Assistance team.
- Offer of identifying icon (sunflower stickers) for invisible conditions
Where Luton needs to improve Special Assistance and Neurodiverse Assistance
- Sunflower stickers fall off.
- Procedures: Family separated and not being allowed to stay together on arrival.
- Plane to passport control experience for physically mobile Special Assistance customers needs a rethink.
- Staff training lacking: Fast Track seemed unaware of concession for Special Assistance customers.
- Facilities: Car park and drop off quite a walk from terminal. (Hopefully, this will change, as development is ongoing)
Dear Readers, Please feel free to share your experiences at Luton airport or any other airport in our review pages.