Virgin Australia passenger devastated after staff 'wreck' wheelchair

The school teacher said the damaged wheelchair was just the tip of the iceberg.

A woman claims Virgin Australia damaged her wheelchair so badly during a recent flight that she was unable to use it on her own, forcing family to push her around for three days in what should have been "a relaxing holiday", while also being left with a whopping bill.

Victorian school teacher Maddy Zarb initially said she "felt lucky" to secure a last-minute flight to watch Carlton take on the Brisbane Lions in an AFL Preliminary Final late last month.

But that sentiment was short-lived after Zarb touched down at Brisbane Airport, only to realise her wheelchair — "a part of my body" — was given back to her in almost an unusable state.

Central Victorian secondary school teacher Maddy Zarb.
Central Victorian secondary school teacher Maddy Zarb claims Virgin Australia badly damaged her wheelchair during a recent flight. Source: Yahoo News Australia.

Zarb's story is just the latest in a long list of similar incidences involving wheelchair users being treated poorly onboard Australian airlines.

Wheelchair 'returned in pieces'

Zarb claims her chair, which was recently upgraded to electric to improve her mobility, was given to her in pieces, The ABC reports.

"It's like they've broken one of my legs," Zarb said. "It's not the same as wrecking a suitcase or jeans or coats, it's like they've actually damaged a part of my body."

The school teacher's brother, who accompanied her on the three-day trip, was able to repair the chair into a "semi-functioning state" — just enough that Zarb could be pushed around — though she was unable to move herself autonomously.

She said she that for the entire trip she was forced to rely on taxis and hired mobility scooters to get around, a fee she later pinned back on Virgin Australia. The young mum also claimed that on the return flight to Victoria, the chair was damaged even further.

"The mobility aid is really essential for Maddy to live a normal life," Zarb's partner, Cam Hendy, said.

"When she doesn't have the chair, it compromises our ability to do things like cook, like play with our son, move around independently, and she ends up in a lot of pain," he said, adding that it'd now been five weeks since Zarb had been left without proper use of her wheelchair.

A Virgin Australia plane.
Virgin has in response said they'll cover some of the costs incurred following the wheelchair being damaged. Source: Getty

Bills blow out over $8000

The bills associated with rental equipment have so far exceeded $8,000.

Having been thorough in keeping records of when she was forced to pay for alternate transport, Zarb hopes to be reimbursed by Virgin Australia, though the couple claim their experience with the airline had so far been "beyond frustrating", with an average response time of six or seven days per email.

According to the ABC, Virgin has agreed to cover some of the hire costs incurred in Brisbane and "will assess the bill for the broken scooter" once repairs are completed.

The airline has not however responded to Zarb's request to cover other costs endured since, including wheelchair and vehicle hire required for Zarb to work.

"Please note that we are continuing to work with the airport management team to ensure that this does not occur again," an email Zarb received from Virgin's customer relations team said. Should Virgin again deliver an unsatisfactory response, the couple plan on escalating the matter further to the airlines ombudsman.

The airline also issued an apology Zarb.

"We sincerely apologise to our guest and continue to work closely with them to promptly assess and process outstanding claims," a Virgin Australia spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia.

"Virgin Australia has paid for the hire of a temporary mobility scooter while repairs are being carried out to the guest’s scooter. Virgin Australia will also cover the cost of these repairs."

All wheelchair users 'have a flight story'

Earlier this year, Yahoo News Australia shed light on what it's like to travel on planes as a wheelchair user, with disability advocates coming forward to share their "shocking" and degrading" experiences.

They 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.

James Wood and his damaged wheelchair.
Mr Wood's wheelchair - priced in excess of $10,000 - was left out in the rain by baggage handlers at Melbourne Airport. Source. Supplied / Instagram.

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.

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