Air Travel and Accessibility for People with Disability

Our Senior Policy Officer Sam French spoke with Fiona Wyllie from NSW Statewide Drive on ABC Local Radio about accessibility issues facing many people with disability when flying.

The interview also features disability advocate Kelly Cox speaking about her experience in flying from the North Coast of NSW to Canberra and other places across Australia.

Source: ABC Statewide Drive

Interview Transcript

Fiona Wyllie: Now, though, in some parts of our state, getting on a plane to Sydney is pretty hard. Airlines choosing not to service some towns, airfares being way too expensive, or in the case of my next guest, some airlines having a limit on how many wheelchairs they allow on any flight. You’re just about to hear from Ballina disability advocate Kelly Cox, but I’d really like to hear your experiences about getting a flight. There are stories around about a family having a skin condition and being refused to fly. 1300 662 279, give me a call or send a text, 0467 922 684. Kelly Cox, good afternoon.

Kelly Cox: Hi, thanks for having me.

Fiona Wyllie: What happened to you when you were in Canberra, and firstly, why were you there?

Kelly Cox: I went down for – it was a last-minute call to action around the Royal Commission into disability abuse. Lots of disabled people from around the country jumped on a plane as quick as they can to get down there and talk to the politicians about why we need a Royal Commission.

Fiona Wyllie: And what happened when you were trying to get back home to the Northern Rivers? Firstly it was hard to get a taxi in Canberra that you could put your wheelchair in.

Kelly Cox: It was. Taxis and wheelchair users, it’s an ongoing struggle. My taxi was very late and because I need one that can accommodate a wheelchair, you can’t just jump in any cab, you’ve got to wait for a specific taxi. Then unfortunately there was a mishap while we were driving and the spare tire fell off the taxi on the road, and that resulted in me missing the flight I was booked on initially, which then triggered a whole host of issues including Jetstar’s two-wheelchair policy.

Fiona Wyllie: Now, that impacts you when you’re travelling with your partner?

Kelly Cox: Correct, my partner’s also in a wheelchair. Any time we want to fly, we are the quota for wheelchairs, so if anybody else needs assistance on that flight, either we can’t fly together or we can’t go at all or it means somebody else will get bumped off the flight. It’s tricky.

Fiona Wyllie: Is it easier for you to fly out of the Gold Coast or on another airline out of Lismore, say?

Kelly Cox: Lismore’s a little trickier, it’s a smaller airport again, and I believe, it’s been a little while since I’ve done it but I think it’s only REX that fly out of Lismore, which I tend to not fly with too often.

Fiona Wyllie: Is that because of the size of their planes?

Kelly Cox: It can be the size of their planes, yeah, and sometimes the airline has funny rules around if you’re a wheelchair user or a person with a disability flying, they want you to have a carer or a companion with you, and often I travel alone, so I can get tripped up by those kinds of issues as well.

Fiona Wyllie: So what’s the process for organising a flight if you need your wheelchair?

Kelly Cox: It’s certainly not as straightforward as non-disabled people. You’ve got to find your flight and book your ticket like anyone else would, and then you need to call and talk to a different department in the airline and let them know that you’ve got a wheelchair, how much it weighs, what the dimensions are, if it’s got a battery, what kind of battery that is. You have to give them all of that information, make sure that if it’s Jetstar or an airline with a two-wheelchair policy that you can get on that flight – often you might book a flight, as happened for me in Canberra, and then be told no, sorry, you can’t get that flight.

Fiona Wyllie: And I hear that actually getting through to that department where they do look after you once you get there can be a bit of a minefield the first time you try and get there.

Kelly Cox: It can be tricky. I fly quite often now and so I’m quite familiar with the process but it’s a pretty daunting task, and the people on the other end of the phone don’t always know – they can see some questions that they have to ask but they don’t necessarily know what that means, so the different types of batteries – and when you’re flying with a battery that can have an impact. If you don’t know all the information that you need to give the airline and the person on the other end of the phone doesn’t really understand the questions they’re asking, it can get more complex again.

Fiona Wyllie: What about actually physically getting on and off the planes, how tricky is that?

Kelly Cox: Again, it comes down to the knowledge of the people who are working for the airline or the airport on that day. When you arrive at the airport you check in, as everybody does, and often all of that information that you provided when you booked your ticket isn’t on the system anywhere, so you have to provide it all again and have the same conversations around dimensions and batteries. And then often what would happen – you have to get there over an hour earlier if you’re travelling with a wheelchair, and often they say ”We want your wheelchair right now,” and you kind of go no, that’s not possible.

Fiona Wyllie: What are you going to do for an hour in the airport? Where are you going to be, what can you do?

Kelly Cox: That’s right, and the wheelchairs they want you to use aren’t wheelchairs you can move yourself around in, so for me when I travel alone – and I’ve got a motorised wheelchair, I can’t push myself in a manual wheelchair even if one was available, so it means if I was to give them my wheelchair I’d be stuck sitting in a corner, wherever they put me, in a very uncomfortable chair to sit in at the best of times. Certainly not something you want to do for any longer than needed. So that can be a bit of a debate at the check-in as well, when are you going to hand over your wheelchair and how long you can leave that before that has to happen.

Fiona Wyllie: So hopefully it’s the last possible moment. Then they will put you, help you, assist you into one of their wheelchairs and organise a lift onto the plane?

Kelly Cox: That’s right. So I will slide from my wheelchair over onto one of their wheelchairs. An airline staff member will push that wheelchair over to the plane. In regional airports there’s a little lift you go up and down in where the stairs are. So someone will do that and you get on the plane and then you slide over into the airline seat and stay in that seat until you arrive at your destination and do the whole thing in reverse.

Fiona Wyllie: And the seats – do the arms lift up on the aisle or not? Because it would be hard getting into the seat, I imagine.

Kelly Cox: The arms lift up in the aisles. Unfortunately for people who might want to fly in business class, those don’t lift up, so you are restricted to always flying in common, which can be problematic if you’re going on a long trip and because of your disability you need a bit more space, or you need to stretch your legs. All kinds of things end up being problematic and quite restrictive in what you can and can’t do. It also becomes an issue if there’s people in the seat next to you, so often you’ll be in the aisle and if someone needs to get in and out of the window seat it gets really tricky.

Fiona Wyllie: If they want to get up to the toilet and so forth.

Kelly Cox: That’s right. I always ask when I check in if they could block those seats so there’s nobody needing to climb over me to get in and out, and often that’s accommodated but sometimes if the flight’s full that’s not possible.

Fiona Wyllie: And is weather an impact too, does weather impact the flights?

Kelly Cox: The weather can impact if you’re in a regional airport where you do have to use the outside lifts. It’s quite tall and narrow so it can be scary going up and down that, and if the wind is too strong they won’t let you actually catch the flight. That happened to a friend of mine recently. We had Cyclone Oma in the area and his flight got cancelled because of the wind, and then I think it was four flights that got changed during the day and he ended up having to fly back to Brisbane and then make his way back to Ballina, which is not ideal.

Fiona Wyllie: No, a long drive and getting transport and so forth. Are there any ways this process could be made simpler and easier for people?

Kelly Cox: I think that the two wheelchair policy has had its day. A woman named Sheila King took Jetstar to court a few years back to challenge that policy and Jetstar won that case based on the fact that they were a budget airline and it would cause some hardship to adjust that policy. I think Jetstar has grown a lot since then and I don’t know that they can still say fairly that Jetstar is a budget airline. I think it’s definitely time to change that policy and lift it.

Fiona Wyllie: I’m talking to disability advocate and traveller Kelly Cox in Ballina. Let’s go to Samantha French. Sam is a senior policy officer in employment and accessibility with People With Disability Australia and joins us now. Good afternoon. You’ve been listening to Kelly’s story, is that a familiar one?

Samantha French: Yes, she’s raised a number of issues that we hear often of the frustrations and challenges people with disability face when trying to fly or use other types of public transport. Definitely, we hear complaints a lot around breakdown in communication, inflexibility in procedures, staff not being as aware as they should be about the rights of people with disability when they fly. Issues in particular for regional and remote areas which are reliant on smaller aircraft and also low cost carriers and the restrictions they have around their models of operation. Absolutely, there is a whole range of issues that have been raised around accessibility.

Fiona Wyllie: What are our rights if we go to get on a plane and someone says, well, there was a story my colleague did. The family, the mother and child had a skin disease and they were refused to be able to fly. How can an airline, what sort of rights do we have and what sort of rights does the airline have when it comes to who travels?

Samantha French: Look, I think airlines definitely have greater rules around safety and what is dictated by aviation laws in terms of safety, and perhaps certain communicable diseases – they may refuse to carry somebody if they have a particular condition, but… Being refused travel – I’m not a lawyer, but that is very discriminatory and I see no reason why that family would not be able to fly. It again it sounds like that is a more attitudinal barrier that has been placed around assumptions that have been made around how it might affect other passengers. It often comes down to, I guess, in terms of the rights of people with disabilities, people with disability have the same rights as others who travel by airline, and to be able to get from A to B when needed if they wish to. To have that refusal of the family, without going into detail because I don’t know the details, it sounds to me like that is discrimination and unlawful.

Fiona Wyllie: Do you think we should ask airlines to put more than two seats aside a flight for people travelling with wheelchairs?

Samantha French: We don’t believe there needs to be such restrictions anymore. I agree with the previous speaker, sorry, I didn’t catch her name–

Fiona Wyllie: Kelly Cox.

Samantha French: Kelly, Kelly. This is outdated. I appreciate that the federal court did make a ruling in 2012; we didn’t agree with the ruling back then and we certainly don’t agree with it now. I believe the basis of that ruling was that it was a low-cost carrier that had certain restrictions in turnaround time. It comes down to – we don’t believe that is a reasonable grounds on which to have a two-wheelchair policy. I don’t believe that case should have gone up in the first place, but it is outdated and shouldn’t be permitted to continue.

Fiona Wyllie: Are there other people with disability who face challenges flying with our airlines in Australia?

Samantha French: Absolutely. There is a whole range of barriers that people face, for example I have a vision impairment, I’m blind, and I know that when I travel alone there are issues with communication. I want to pick up on one issue that Kelly mentioned around communication. The time it takes to actually make a booking and communicate with an airline, and the time restraints that they place on how people with disability can and can’t travel. That is a really interesting area, I think, that could easily be remedied and yet airlines place restrictions in their models of operating and the procedures that staff will follow. In terms of other disability, absolutely, I mentioned the barriers of people with vision impairment and hearing impairments.

Fiona Wyllie: And what are some of the impairments you’ve faced as a result when flying?

Samantha French: With my particular disability? I’ve travelled both nationally and internationally to do advocacy work. In my personal experience around communication, information, having access to that information. There is a service which Kelly was talking about with assistance for people who use wheelchairs or have other access needs. Sometimes the procedure just breaks down and you’re not assisted in the way that you needed. Another issue Kelly mentioned, the lack of individualized response. Airline staff making assumptions about, based on your type of disability, what needs you may have, and rather than individualised needs of a particular passenger and adjusting procedures accordingly. The fact that I am recorded as legally blind, has meant that there have been a lot of assumptions about the kinds of assistance I need. In fact I don’t use a cane or a guide dog. I have some very limited vision but I travel regularly and I can do some parts of the journey independently and others not.

Fiona Wyllie: So what would you like? Someone to actually ask you what you need and what you’re fine about?

Samantha French: Yes, obviously. I think there are a few things. The procedures on the website, the procedures you are required to follow as a person with disability, that needs to be more flexible. There also needs to be better communication about, particularly in terms of change of aircraft. For me, if I am required to change from an aircraft you have to access on the tarmac, that is very problematic for me and many others. Just not communicating when there are changes to services, changes to aircraft, or not communicating directions, not listening to what the person says their needs are and just sticking to procedure. One size does not fit all.

Fiona Wyllie: Indeed it doesn’t in this world. Thank you so much for your time, Sam.

Samantha French: No worries.

Fiona Wyllie: That’s Samantha French, senior policy officer at People With Disability Australia. We heard too from disability advocate and Ballina traveller Kelly Cox.