In many airports in the United Kingdom, passengers are required to walk straight through a duty free shop (as in straight through it, not alongside its entrance) to get to the departure gates after completing security checks.

However, there may be people who may be unable to do so for accessibility reasons. In general, these duty free shops consist of flashing lights, loud sounds, strong smells, and other things that are strong to human senses. Some people are extremely sensitive to these senses, such as those with epilepsy or certain forms of autism spectrum disorder, and so being required to pass through a duty free shop could make the departure gates completely inaccessible to them.

At some UK airports, this is not an issue. For example, at Birmingham Airport, one can request at the assistance desk before security to be escorted through a special corridor that bypasses the otherwise mandatory duty free shop. However, not all UK airports offer this.

I, as someone with sensitivity to bright and flashing lights, ran into this at London's Heathrow Airport, Terminal 3. I called Heathrow in advance and was told they would accommodate anyone who had accessibility issues passing through the duty free shop. However, at the airport, I inquired at the pre-security assistance desk, and was told the terminal was not constructed with a means of bypassing the duty free shopping area, and the best thing they could do was provide a handler that would walk with me through the full shop. Once I made it through security, I was immediately hit with bright, flashing lights, and had to cover my eyes in order to make it through the shop without getting a headache.

I do not believe that having a handler escort one through the shop would completely resolve the issues of light, sound, or smell sensitivities. The only way to properly accommodate someone with those sensitivities is to provide a separate corridor.

The inability for someone to bypass a mandatory duty free shopping area could be a violation of the Equality Act, which states that:

Where this Act imposes a duty to make reasonable adjustments on a person, this section, sections 21 and 22 and the applicable Schedule apply; and for those purposes, a person on whom the duty is imposed is referred to as A.

(2) The duty comprises the following three requirements.

(3) The first requirement is a requirement, where a provision, criterion or practice of A's puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage in relation to a relevant matter in comparison with persons who are not disabled, to take such steps as it is reasonable to have to take to avoid the disadvantage.

The practice of Heathrow's here is requiring all air passengers at Terminal 3 to pass through the duty free shop, which puts those with high sensitivities (caused by a disability) at a substantial disadvantage compared to those without the disability.

Is requiring all passengers, regardless of disability, to pass through a duty free shop to get from security to gates a violation of the Equality Act in the UK?

  • 1
    Related question on Travel
    – gparyani
    Commented Jul 24, 2022 at 23:44
  • 1
    It's entirely likely that a court would find a handler to be a reasonable accommodation; if the sensitivity is significant, a blindfold and a wheelchair might be sufficient. The cost of providing an alternative corridor could be very high.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 9:05
  • 1
    There are very loud noises when you are on a flight.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 10:31
  • 1
    @gnasher729 For someone on the autism spectrum, jet engine noise is a lot less difficult to process than sound containing information (music or spoken word).
    – gparyani
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 12:25

1 Answer 1



Building owners are not required to modify their buildings to comply with the Equality Act - this goes beyond "reasonable accommodation".

  • 2
    Escorting someone through a passage that is normally closed to the public -- for surely such a passage exists -- might be a more reasonable accommodation.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 9:06
  • @phoog it might be but there may be security and safety issues that need to be considered. It may pass through the arrivals area or baggage handling. Also, I wouldn’t take it for granted that “surely” it exists.
    – Dale M
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 9:10
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    Security and safety issues are indeed the reason for my hedging with the word "might." I say "surely it exists" because my experience in airports with such duty free shops has been that service personnel are not in evidence there; rather, they have access to a service corridor that is closed to the public. But you are right: "surely" is a bit of hyperbole. There's also the VIP service, which allows bypassing the terminal altogether, so some less luxurious version could be offered as an accommodation if necessary.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 9:23
  • Some airports have been extensively remodeled since the passing of the Equality Act 2010, yet they have not removed duty free zones (Edinburgh); others are currently being modified (Bristol, Birmingham, Newcastle) or had modernisation schemes cancelled (Gatwick) with no plans to remove duty free areas. So it's not just a question of being unwilling to modify existing buildings.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 9:45
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    I recently connected through Heathrow Terminal 3 and there was a separate security checkpoint for connecting passengers, which contained a tunnel that allows one to bypass the mandatory duty free shopping area (designed for those with tight connections). Surely it shouldn't be much effort to have someone go through a maintenance corridor to allow them to complete their security check there.
    – gparyani
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 12:29

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