Brian Crowley MEP Travel Interview

I have been a Member of the European Parliament since 1994 for the constituency of Ireland South.  Previously a member of Seanad Éireann, I studied law at university, and was also a singer in a rock band.

My career in Brussels and Strasbourg necessitates a lot of travel, especially air travel.  Travel over the years has become easier but less glamorous with security restrictions and baggage allowances.

As a wheelchair user I require assistance at airports and there aren’t always the same standards or quality of assistance. I have often felt discriminated against; for example an airline refused me boarding a number of times because I would not check in my chair at the check-in desk, (as opposed to letting me give them my chair once I had boarded the plane). Also, some airlines only permit a few special assistance passengers per flight and this rule could mean you may find yourself unable to book a flight even though there are available seats.

The quality of the assistance varies across countries and airports. Of course I might be expected to say this, but the quality of service in Cork, Dublin and Shannon airports is fantastic.  Maybe it’s because they’re smaller, but Schiphol in Amsterdam, (a large airport), is very good, especially for internal transfers.

Charles De Gaulle in Paris is more difficult as it has five separate terminals, spread across a large area. You have to get buses from one terminal to another and it’s not always possible to get on the right bus at the right time; it can be frustrating when under time constraints. For the same reason Heathrow in London can be quite awkward too.

Personally, I find rail travel the most difficult form of travel because assistance is needed to get onto the train even though you would think it easy. Not every train has the facilities or space in the carriage for a wheelchair. Getting someone to take you off the train at your destination doesn’t always work either.  I have used the Eurostar to Brussels occasionally and the train from Amsterdam to Strasbourg too.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

One of the most amazing travel experiences I’ve had was during a trip to Sarajevo in Bosnia.  The special assistance person there was a European Champion Weightlifter. He came up to the plane, lifted me out of my seat, carried me down the steps, and placed me in my chair. Now I’m not small by any means but he was huge. That was one of the funniest things that ever happened.

There are some fantastic places to fly into when travelling. Flying in over the islands off Donegal into Carrickfinn Airport is breathtaking. Flying into Nairobi in Kenya and the Eastern part of Poland on the Russian Border are spectacular too.

My most memorable trip was my first, at 14 years of age, to visit my uncle who was a priest in Manchester.  I was fascinated by flying then and to this day I still am. When I sit in an airport and see planes taking off and landing, I think of the phenomenal technology and human endeavour that make it happen, run on schedule and relatively safely too.

As well as the good trips, there have also been times I’ve hated travelling.  There have been several times I have been stuck in cities and have had to stay in hotels overnight because flights were cancelled or delayed.  When I first started going to Brussels in 1994, I found the special assistance services at each airport difficult and often missed my flights.  But the systems are much more streamlined now.

As I explained earlier travel can be frustrating and tiresome and some airlines can be very pernickety about the things they will and will not allow. You are dependent on them to get you to your destination.

I have never had a real travel disaster, even at the time of the volcanic ash cloud.  I had returned to Ireland the day before the volcano erupted, but some of my colleagues were caught in Brussels for nearly two weeks, so I was lucky on that occasion.  Events like this show you the inability of the human being to control nature and it doesn’t matter how uptight you get, you can’t do anything about it. You just have to wait for the clouds to clear; excuse the pun.