Kurt Fearnley recently won the New York Marathon. Just days later he crawled along the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. He got even more media attention when he complained about the treatment he got from an airline. Fearnley was forced to check in his wheelchair with his baggage. He chose to crawl through the airport rather than be pushed around in another chair. Many people have problems when they travel by plane. Some airlines have rules or staff that make people with a disability angry or sad. Airlines are now being asked to improve their service.
Posted by: Joanne Richie, on 05/01/10
Many people with a disability face difficulties when flying
Kurt Fearnley had an eventful end to 2009. The athlete, adventurer and ambassador for International Day of People with a Disability received a lot of media attention. In November he won his fourth straight New York marathon. Just 16 days later, he was enjoying a well-earned drink after crawling the 98km Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea.
Fearnley was in the news again in December after criticising Jetstar for his treatment during his return home to Newcastle. Fearnley’s experience highlighted the difficulties and frustrations that many people who rely on wheelchairs for mobility can face when using air transport.
Fearnley was angry because Jetstar staff in Brisbane insisted he check in his wheelchair with his other luggage. Rather than use a transit chair provided, the athlete chose to retain his independence by crawling through Brisbane airport.
Anger and frustration
Countless news outlets across the country reported Kurt Fearnley’s anger and frustration at what he considered was humiliating treatment. An apology from Jetstar was made. But since the incident, other people with a disability have spoken about the difficulties they have with air travel.
The incidents suggest airline policies do not necessary translate into practical procedures that allow people with a disability to fly like anybody else. Fearnley’s incident in particular demonstrated how a policy can actually disable a person.
The type of wheelchair Fearnley was offered (and declined) was a transit chair. These wheelchairs have small wheels and require a second person to push the chair. They render the person sitting in the chair dependent on someone else. For Fearnley, the imposed loss of independence was more disabling than his actual condition.
Other stories have since illustrated how airline policy (or a lack of knowledge of policy by staff) has resulted in problems for some people. For example, several people with vision impairments told of airline staff refusing to allow guide dogs onto planes.
So how can existing policies be improved to enable every customer to travel by air in Australia without undue inconvenience and humiliation?
The Federal Government's new National Aviation Policy White Paper recognises that many people with disabilities have difficulties when travelling by air.
The paper discusses the introduction of Disability Access Facilitation Plans. The purpose of these plans is to document the actions that airports and airlines are taking to meet the needs of passengers with a disability. The Federal Government is encouraging members of the aviation industry to make their plans publicly available.
Challenging the industry
The Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Mr Graeme Innes has challenged the airline industry to make sure their Disability Action Facilitation Plans are lodged by the middle of this year.
If this does not occur, or if promises are not fulfilled, it will be time for government to regulate equal treatment, says Mr Innes.
The National Aviation Policy White Paper can be found at the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development & Local Government website (opens new window).
What changes to airlines or airports would you like to see? Let us know in the comments section below.
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