'Special assistance' at airports has not yet recovered from the pandemic job cuts.

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As most people are excited to get back into the air, travelers with disabilities are finding things rather more difficult.

Delays, snafus, even lost and damaged luggage? Welcome to the world of travelers with disabilities, who’ve been dealing with all this for years.

“It’s definitely got worse since the pandemic,” says Roberto Castiglioni, director of Reduced Mobility Rights, which advocates for disabled travelers.

“Staff shortages are not only having an impact on not enough [assistance-dedicated] agent,” he says. “Where airports have seen shortages in security staff, there are very long lines to go through.”

Anyone who can’t stand for, at times, hours – whether elderly, pregnant or sick – has to request assistance, adding extra stress on a short-staffed system.

The pandemic saw the aviation industry haemorrhage staff worldwide – a major cause of the chaos seen at airports worldwide in 2022. But it isn’t just a lack of manpower we’re facing. “There’s been a massive loss of corporate culture and knowledge,” says Castiglioni – and for travelers who need extra help, that cuts deeper.

Disabilities affect roughly one in five of the population and there are many passengers who use what’s termed “special assistance” when moving around airports.

That could be someone partially sighted needing guidance to the gate, someone with sensory issues needing help at pinchpoints such as security or during boarding, or a passenger with a bad knee who can walk to the gate, but can’t do steps.

Around 27 million passengers with disabilities flew through US airports in 2019, according to the Department of Transportation (DOT).

And with a system already under stress, the results can be devastating.

“I’ve traveled by air 16 times this year, and only twice was the airline on time,” says David Blunkett, a UK politician who served as home secretary, and now sits in the House of Lords, the country’s upper parliamentary chamber. “I’m fine – I’ve got someone with me on all occasions and I’m mobile, but my heart went out to those who aren’t. [Travel] chaos is bad enough for people who can adapt quickly but for those with special needs it can often be a catastrophe.”

In June, a passenger who’d booked special assistance died at London’s Gatwick Airport when he decided to make his way into the terminal unaided instead of waiting for assistance. A staff member had arrived at the gate to take three passengers to a buggy, and had already taken the first person when the man decided to walk. The airport has launched an investigation into the incident.

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