Wheeling & Dealing in the Air

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Travelling is often a Herculean effort for the disabled. What makes it worse is the insensitivity of the airlines and the delay in getting them wheelchairs. Can tighter regulations make them answerable?

By Bikram Vohra


ALL of us at airports see passengers in wheelchairs. The infirm, the injured, the elderly. More often than not, their travails are multiplied. One of the areas that has become contentious is of giving this segment of travellers second-rate status and treating them so.

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As the age of air travellers increases exponentially, the wheelchair demand ups to as high as 10 percent of passengers, with about six to eight per 150 passengers having disabilities. The demand from tour groups for retirees can rise to nearly 20 to 30 per 150 passengers and cause huge boarding and disembarkation problems.

NEEDLESS DEMANDS?
Airlines defend themselves by saying that lazy, shiftless passengers wreck their planning by suddenly demanding wheelchairs. So, 20 legitimate requests can balloon into 50 last-minute demands. The worthy get lumped with the lazy. Things came to a head on the issue when a video went viral recently.

An elderly couple were stranded in an Air India aircraft recently for 70 minutes after it came into Mumbai from Hyderabad because there were no wheelchairs. Their demand forms for assistance at disembarkation were correctly filled up and though the crew stayed on the flight, it seems the system was indifferent to their plight. The couple just kept sitting in the 37 degree sauna with the crew. Rudeness and indifference towards passengers is not new.

A frequent flyer, Meeta Chopra, wrote to this author in response to a video he had put up of the stranded couple: “This is a normal procedure in Mumbai. We have also been stranded similarly. We were going from Delhi to Mumbai and then the flight was to carry on to Goa. At Mumbai airport, they could not find a chair lift so all wheelchair-bound passengers and their attendants were left on board, while Goa-bound passengers were taken to another plane.”

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Poonam Kapoor, the sister of film star-politician Vinod Khanna, also narrates her experience: “We went through this too…waited for wheelchair for 45 minutes after landing ’coz they said they did not have enough of those to cater to the patients requiring it.”
This is a quote from an American passenger treated like… dirt.

“Are THE HANDICAPPED PEOPLE considered 3rd class people. There is any law ordering that some consideration must be shown to them? Driving, we have special assigned spaces to park, flying and paying pretty good money, nothing. We are treated like…well you know what!!!”

The above incidents underscore the prejudice or indifference towards passengers with special needs. Airlines promise to go that extra step but fail all too often to live up to that expectation.

­MONEY TALKS
On arrival in Delhi last month, I noticed there was a melee outside the door in the jetway as seven or eight passengers fought for the six wheelchairs that came up with scruffy attendants who couldn’t care less. One lady was overheard telling them that the guy who came with her would get tipped. You guessed right… money talked and walked. The others had to wait. It is no unusual sight to see people left in their seats like unwanted debris while they helplessly wait for attention.

Rudeness comes with the territory. While it is exceptionally rare in Business and First Class, Economy Class passengers pay a price in facing discourtesy, and most of it is practiced by the ground staff. Cabin crew are universally acclaimed as being a bit nicer. They don’t like the absence of wheelchairs any more than the passengers because they cannot check out till the cabin is emptied of passengers.

All too often, when the engines die out, the infirm passengers have to sit helplessly in the heat or the cold.
According to the promise and the premise of the contract, the airline promises to fly an individual from point A to point B with security and safety.

Several class action suits have been predicated to a failure to keep that promise whether the plane is terminated by pilot error, an attack from a third party, hijackings or Controlled Flight Into Terrain.

To give a current example, in the Metrojet crash in Egypt, the flight was not completed, hence the airline is liable. Here comes the legal rub. In the case of the stranded couple, the airline landed safely at Point B. But is its obligation over? If the passenger is medically unfit and requires a wheelchair, then a Medical Information form needs to be filled. So says Air India.

AIRLINES’ RESPONSIBILITY
And this is where it begins to get sticky. The airline is responsible until the passenger has deplaned because till that moment, like with diplomatic territories, the space is the carrier’s and the journey not completed. But, all too often, airlines outsource the special needs aspect to a third party and lose control over efficiency, paying the price in reputation for their vendor’s attitude. This does not legally make them less liable. The accountability at Point B is not yet over. The Airports Authority of India washes its hands off the whole thing, stepping in only where an incident which occurs within the confines of an airport calls for aid.

The most stringent laws are in the US and Europe. Both US and foreign air carriers are subject to Air Carrier Access Act (AACA) requirements generally prohibiting discrimination in the provision of air transportation and related services (14 CFR 382.11(a)(1) and (3)). If an airline provides ground transportation services to its premium customers (e.g., First Class passengers or elite frequent flyers), the Aviation Enforcement Office would regard the failure or refusal of an airline to provide “equivalent service” to a passenger with a disability in connection with a covered flight in the same class of service as a violation of these provisions. Sounds good but it does not work that way. Economy will never get it so good.

Ellen Brehm, a retired nurse, is now 83. Her flight landed at Newark at about 1:20 am. There was no wheelchair. She was asked to get off the plane because the crew had to leave the plane and their duty time was over. She was left stranded for 35 minutes on the jet bridge with no one doing her any reverence. “Here I am, at 2 am., 83 years old, all by myself,” Brehm says. “There wasn’t one person in this whole huge airport.”
The US has a carrier act under which there is a provision: “Airlines are obligated to provide free, prompt wheelchair assistance between curbside and cabin seat to comply with the 21-year-old AACA, an anti-discrimination law.”

LESS OBLIGATION
In Europe, airports have a legal obligation under EU Regulation 1107/2006 to assist disabled travelers. It does not always go as well as the given pledge. Remember the Finnair case? Here is the capsule report sent out by a news agency: “An Indian passenger of Finnair AY832 from London to the airline’s hub Helsinki was left bleeding on the tarmac of the airport for 29 minutes, with a jaw bone fracture, a deep gash and four teeth broken when she slipped and fell down while de-boarding on September 15, her family says.”

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Crew of Finnair

In response, Finnair said in an e-mail that it confirms a passenger was injured as she tripped on the stairs while de-boarding her flight at Helsinki. “We’re extremely sorry about the accident and wish the passenger in question a speedy recovery,” the airline added.

In India, the 1995 Disability Act, which requires government job slots, accessibility to public places and free education for the disabled, is at best a flimsy document.

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Anjalee Agarwal, suffering from muscular dystrophy, was a victim of harassment by the staff of Jet Airways

No one has really ever gone to court and sought legal redress. After several “unfriendly” experiences, former journalist Javid Aqib has spearheaded a campaign to end discrimination. As of now, the issue is unresolved.
Take Jet Airways. In February 2012, the airline was accused of a discrimination complaint. Anjalee Agarwal, a patient with muscular dystrophy, complained of “discriminatory harassment at the hands of Jet Airways personnel”. On the second leg of her flight, she was “manhandled by untrained personnel despite an aisle chair being available”. She was forced to sign a waiver of non-liability by the carrier…she wanted the nightmare to end and surrendered. Who needs more hassles?

Most shocking was this carrier charging as high as $50 from passengers flying on Gulf routes for wheelchair assistance.

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This scandalous conduct against the provisions of the rules never got attention because the media never picked it up and no pressure was placed on the airline to penalize it.

What this carrier ignored is that compliance with anti-discrimination legislation and wheelchair assistance is free of charge at European, Indian and US airports and these are grounds for criminal negligence.

Last week, India announced plans for a new network of hub and spoke regional routes. The proposal to widen the Indian aviation map by bringing down the cost of flying to ` 2,500 per hour of flight is laudable.

The statement by civil aviation secretary RN Choubey said: “The mandate from the Prime Minister was to bring out a policy which will make it possible for the masses to fly. That is the message which we set out to work with.”
While all this is fine, it might be salutary to get wheelchairs and improve the current status. Airlines only win by default because the hapless passenger wants to go home. Even if he has to crawl the last few miles.

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