The Challenges of Air Travel With a Disability


Last week I read an article about a young man who was asked to leave an Alaska Airlines flight after he vomited before takeoff. The family with whom this young man was traveling has asserted that they were kicked off of the flight because he has Down syndrome. The family was escorted off the plane, the young man was given a trash bag, and they were left stranded in the airport. According to a statement released by Alaska Airlines, the young man was unfit to fly because he was ill. The statement from Alaska Airlines also said that the young man was asked to leave the flight because it would be easier to treat him on the ground rather than during the flight, and they were looking out for the best interest of the other passengers on board.

While Alaska Airlines’ explanation sounds reasonable, their handling of the situation was poor at best. So it got me thinking about what happens when disabled people are mistreated while flying and their story doesn’t make the 6 o’clock news or get reported in a major newspaper.

At the end of February I flew from Sydney, Australia to Washington, D.C. to participate in Rare Disease Week on Capitol Hill. About three weeks before my flight I spoke to a Qantas Airlines customer service representative to arrange for disability assistance. She arranged for a person to meet me with a wheelchair at each leg of my trip, and helped me choose a seat that would be optimal for me (sadly it wasn’t in first class). My flight from Sydney went off without a hitch; however my returnflight from Washington, D.C. to Sydney was not so pleasant.

Even though disability assistance had been set up, no one was there to assist me, and when I arrived in Sydney it just got worse. Before the plane landed, a flight attendant came to my seat to discuss the assistance I needed. She instructed me to stay in my seat and someone would bring a wheelchair to the door and assist me off the plane. This made me extremely happy because after the 17-hour flight from Dallas to Sydney, my feet and legs were so swollen that I could not put my shoes on and close the fasteners. I also wear braces on my legs, and they hurt to put on.

After waiting for all of the passengers to deplane, a different flight attendant told me that I must deplane on my own and make my way down the jet way to the disability transport. I explained that I was told to wait in my seat for assistance, but by then he was no longer listening. So after shoving my sausage feet into my shoes I hobbled in pain down the jet way. There were about nine or 10 passengers also waiting for the disability transport, and as I made my way down the jet way it was leaving with a full load.

While waiting for it to return, two Qantas Airline employees and an airport employee pushed two empty wheelchairs away from the gate and a third wheelchair with a stroller in it. The employees knew the remaining five people were waiting for the disability transport, but left without making sure we could all get on it. When the disability transport returned, four people got on and put their carry-on luggage on the seat, meaning there was no room for me. By this time the employees with the wheelchairs had gone. I did not have time to wait for them to come back, and there were no Qantas or airport employees available for me to ask for assistance, so I walked to baggage claim.

When I arrived home, I called the airport and Qantas Airlines customer services lines to file a complaint and was told by both that I should go to their website and file my complaint there. I went to each website and completed the form to file a formal complaint. I received an email stating that my message had been received and someone would respond within 15 working days. My first thought was “they don’t really care about my complaint” and my second thought was “no one is going to respond.” I should also add this is not the first time I have filed a complaint with Qantas Airlines and the Sydney Airport regarding their treatment of disabled passengers.

The first response I received was from the airport and came a few days later. Their response put the blame on Qantas and suggested I contact them. The response from Qantas came about two weeks later and they stated that during busy times at the airport it is hard to meet everyone’s needs; they also put the blame on the airport and suggested I contact them. Needless to say I was unhappy with these responses; it should not be the responsibility of other disabled passengers to tell people that the disability transport is not for their luggage.

So this leads me back to my original question. What are we to do when our personal experiences are not national news? I don’t think people in general dislike disabled people, don’t want to help or are deliberately going out of their way to discriminate against disabled people. I believe airports and airlines have bad policies when it comes to providing assistance to disabled passengers, and as a result their employees don’t receive appropriate training — or any training — on how to manage these situations.

I read an article a few days ago highlighting a new service Virgin Australian Airlines will be offering to disabled passengers. A caregiver traveling with a disabled person will be eligible for 50 percent of their fare. While this is a great step forward, there are still many disabled people who travel unaccompanied and require assistance, and services without training are meaningless. The Muscular Dystrophy Association has collaborated with some airlines to make traveling for disabled people easier; maybe this is something all airlines should be required to do.

My independence is important to me and I enjoy traveling. My dignity is also important to me, and I shouldn’t have to educate airport and airline employees on how to provide assistance to disabled people. That is and should be the responsibility of their employers.

Getty image by Manop1984.


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