John Holland-Kaye told LBC that some passengers are "using wheelchair support to get through the airport faster", adding it was "the wrong thing to do".But disability groups said his comments were "a bit rich" and the mobility support problems at airports were "more serious than that".
In June, a TikTok user returning from Ibiza was slammed for filming himself pretending to have a sore foot and be unable to walk in order to get through lengthy queues at the airport.
In a post on the social media platform, TikTok user @WolfJenko wrote: "Faked hurting my leg to get through security faster and onto the plane back from Ibiza."
Heathrow's Mr Holland Kaye told LBC's Nick Ferrari: "We do have as many people now working in our passengers requiring support team as we had before the pandemic. We've seen demand has gone up significantly,"
"For passengers requiring wheelchair support, we have more demand than we had before the pandemic. Why is that happening? Some of this is because people are using the wheelchair support to try and get FastTrack through the airport, and we need to protect that for the people who most need help.
"If you go on TikTok that is one of the travel hacks people are recommending - please don't do that we need to protect the service for the people who need it most."
Mr Holland-Kaye added that about half of arriving passengers who request assistance only do so once they are on the plane.
He urged people who “really need the service” to let Heathrow know “well in advance so we can make sure there are enough people there to meet your needs”.
Wilson James, which provides the PRM service at Heathrow, Gatwick andLuton, said the airport had assisted 638,000 PRM passengers alone at Heathrow since the beginning of the year. The company said that the previous highest passenger number was in July of 2018 at just under 143,000.
A spokesperson for Wilson James said, “We have seen an increase in the number of passengers with restricted movement (PRM) overall. In the first six months of the year, Wilson James was called on to provide support to 883,365 passengers with restricted mobility at London Heathrow, London Gatwick and London Luton airports.
"We have assisted 638,000 PRM passengers alone at Heathrow since the beginning of the year, with approximately 154,000 passengers in the month of June. For context, in June of last year, we assisted 27,000 passengers. Previous to this year’s record high PRM numbers in May and June, our previous highest passenger number was in July of 2018 at just under 143,000."
They added: "While it is difficult to precisely quantify the impact of misinformation, especially since not all disabilities are visible, any attempt to ‘game’ the system by those who don't require assistance could impact on our ability to serve those that genuinely require our help, and anyone pretending to need assistance should be ashamed of their actions.”
Other airports have reported a rise in the number of people asking for assisted travel.
Birmingham airport said mobility support requests have risen by a third.
A spokesperson said: “Current requests for assisted travel at BHX are a third higher than before the pandemic. We can only speculate as to the reasons why this is.
“We want to ensure air travel is accessible for everyone. We encourage only those who need the assisted travel service to use it.”
But Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK said that while a few "foolish people" would exacerbate the problem, it was a "long-running issue" at British airports including Heathrow.
"There probably are a few rogue passengers but I'm not prepared to believe the problem is caused by a few foolish people. The problem is much more serious than this," she said.
There have been several high-profile issues where people with disabilities have been left for hours to disembark.
BBC journalist and wheelchair user Frank Gardner has criticised airports before after he was left on a plane long after it had landed.
In a recent incident, he posted an image on Twitter from inside the aircraft on the runway at Gatwick with no other passengers in sight.
Ms Hadi said lack of mobility support at airports had been a problem before the pandemic, but said the issue had got worse since restrictions were lifted.
"There are some serious issues with how airports staff and resource mobility services," she told ITV News.
Passengers flying to and from many UK airports have suffered severe disruption in recent months, with long security queues and baggage system breakdowns.
On July 12, Heathrow introduced a cap of 100,000 daily departing passengers until September 11, leading to more flights being cancelled on top of the tens of thousands that had already been axed this summer to help reduce the disruption.
The airport said a shortage of ground handlers is “the constraint on Heathrow’s capacity” as airlines struggle to replace staff let go due to the pandemic.
In June this year, the aviation watchdog told airports to address “unacceptable” failings affecting disabled people and warned it could use legal enforcement powers if they continue.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said it had seen an increase in reports of “significant service failings”, including incidents where passengers needing assistance have been taken off a plane hours after other passengers.
In a letter, group director of consumers and markets Paul Smith said the incidents were unacceptable and distressing for those involved.The authority believes these incidents could have been avoided by better management of assistance service function, despite the current travel disruptions.
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