For many Australians, hopping onto a plane is an exciting and exhilarating experience — knowing a much-needed vacation is merely a few hours, a small seat and an average-at-best in-flight meal away.
But for the roughly one in six Aussies living with a disability — some four and a half million people — and in particular those in wheelchairs, flying is a “horrible, anxiety inducing” and often deeply triggering struggle.
For the almost 200,000 across the nation who require a wheelchair in everyday life, a trip to the airport can often be a last resort when it comes to travel, with many choosing to abstain from flying altogether as a result of their continued mistreatment on board.
Advocates say every single wheelchair user in the country who has flown will have a story to tell about the “appalling” conditions they’ve faced on board Australian airlines — with Qantas and Jetstar in particular named as repeat offenders.
'Everyone has a story'
One such advocate, James Wood, a Melburnian wheelchair user of 30 years, told Yahoo News Australia he’s had his chair lost by airlines multiple times — which has left him immobile, forcing him to wait hours in airports for a replacement — has had his chair broken, damaged, been told there was “nobody available” to unload his chair from a flight, leaving him, again, to sit in an airport and wait, on top of dozens of other examples of poor treatment over the last three decades.
With Qantas under new management following the abrupt departure of the troubled carrier’s controversial CEO Alan Joyce, Mr Wood said “more time and money” needs to be immediately invested in retraining staff and improving travel conditions for wheelchair users.
“It's just — it’s horrible,” Mr Wood told Yahoo. “I shouldn't say completely horrible because the simple fact is that I can still travel — and many can’t — I can get to most places around the country and around the world if I want to.
“But I think the issue that most people with disability have when it comes to travel, is the fact that when they take your mobility equipment away from you, it can create quite a lot of anxiety, just not knowing where that wheelchair’s going.”
A victim of a workplace accident three decades ago, Mr Wood now works as a safety speaker, prompting awareness. He said he’s forced to travel for work, but will often choose not to fly.
“A lot of people that I know, they're in same situation as me,” the 58-year-old said. “You know, flying is not the preferred way to go. I travel for work and since since Qantas has changed its baggage handlers over I've actually been packing up the car and driving two or three days, rather than jumping on a flight.”
'Disrespect' towards wheelchairs rampant on flights
Just days ago, Mr Wood was sitting on board a Qantas flight in Brisbane waiting to disembark when he saw his wheelchair had been dumped on the tarmac, flipped onto its side. He said in this instance there was no serious damage, but he found the move seriously disrespectful, particularly given the chair’s $10,000 price tag.
“It was lying on its push rims,” he said. “Now the thing about the push rims is that they’re smooth, and they're shaped to fit into the palm of my hand. So you know, if they are scratched or if they're dented or in any way, that means every time I push that impacts my hands.”
“I’m just making the point more than anything that staff need to understand this, Qantas needs to train their staff that these pieces of equipment — like wheelchairs and mobility equipment — they’re so much more than that."
I can't walk at all, I can't stand up and if I am without my wheelchair, I'm pretty well stuffed.Wheelchair user James Wood
With the majority of wheelchairs in Australia tailored to an individual’s needs, in essence custom-made, it’s unacceptable to suggest a wheelchair user simply “replace, hire or loan” a new one, should it be damaged on a flight.
“I’m lucky, I do have a spare one, but it's at home in Melbourne. So, if my wheelchair’s damaged in Brisbane — or in any of the other airports around the country — I'm pretty well screwed.”
Despite its flaws, Mr Wood said he still chooses to travel with Qantas, though he refuses to board a Jetstar flight.
“I won't fly Jetstar, their customer service is just horrible,” he said. “I mean, look, I understand that there's a little bit more work involved with a passenger that has a disability, you have to assist them just a little bit more — but you actually feel with Jetstar that we're imposing on them.”
Short-term solution to 'anxiety-inducing' flights
Though a myriad of procedural changes would vastly benefit the lives of wheelchairs users and those living with disability in general, Mr Wood said that in the short-term, allowing wheelchairs to be stored on board cabins, as opposed to beneath them in luggage areas, would significantly improve travelling for many.
“If you were to say to me: ‘What would be the one thing that would change flying for you?’, I would say to have my wheelchair in the cabin,” he said. “You know, the anxiety for some people, the fact that that wheelchair is taken away from you — and once it's gone, once you're on that aisle chair, or sitting in your plane on the seat, you’ve got no idea where your your wheelchair is — for some people that’s extremely stressful”.
Experts weigh in on aircraft accessibility
Kerry Williams, founder of Accessible Accommodation, echoed Mr Woods’ sentiment and called for Aussie airlines to make the change as soon as possible.
“We would like to have a constructive dialogue with Qantas and Jetstar, to explain the multiple challenges a wheelchair users experience when flying,” she said.
“The mishandling of expensive wheelchairs, which are an extension of a person’s legs. The inability to go to the bathroom on a plane and the lack of transport wheelchairs at the destination.
“Until our airlines take this matter seriously, not only are Aussies with disabilities prevented from flying in comfort, but our tourism industry is being impacted because it is so difficult to fly to Australia. It’s not just the right thing to do; it makes business sense to allow wheelchairs on planes.”
Ms Williams said “if the USA can test new seat designs allowing this, so can our Australian airline”.
Airlines respond to claims
A spokesperson for Jetstar apologised to Mr Wood. "We’re committed to providing a safe and comfortable travel experience to all our customers, including those requiring specific assistance, and we’re really sorry to hear this wasn't Mr Wood’s experience," the representative told Yahoo News Australia.
"Our teams regularly review the support we provide customers with specific needs and we welcome any feedback that will help us continue to improve the service we provide."
Qantas said it would contact Mr Wood. “We will reach out to Mr Wood to better understand his recent experience," a spokesperson told Yahoo.
Both carriers advised that they have dedicated teams to support travellers with disabilities and staff undertake regular training.
A petition started by Ms Williams, calling on airlines in Australia to allow wheelchairs in cabin space has so far attracted 35,000 signatures.
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