Airlines’ disability travel policies need change

But one HSPer fulfils a dream


Luke and carer onboard

“Airlines help paralysed man fly to Melbourne after mother’s plea” was the headline on an ABC News story on 15 November. A good news story about travelling with disability – great! We don’t get enough of them! However the reality is quite different and far from encouraging.


Here is some more of that 15 November ABC News story:

Qantas and Jetstar have agreed to work together to help a paralysed Adelaide man fly interstate, after his mother appealed for their help. On Thursday morning, Adelaide mother Carolyn Lawlor-Smith plead for cooperation between the co-owned airlines to help her chronically ill son Luke Green fly to Melbourne to visit his brother. She wants to fly Luke to Melbourne to watch a live recording of the ABC’s Mad As Hell, which his brother David writes for.

Mr Green, 27, lives with a rare hereditary condition called hereditary spastic paraplegia type 11, which has paralysed him from the neck down and caused problems with eating, swallowing and speaking. The condition has also robbed the family of their daughter and sister, Alice, who died two years ago from aspiration pneumonia related to the same illness.

Ms Lawlor-Smith said she and her son watched Mad As Hell together each week, and during a recent episode he asked to see it being filmed in person.

“He just adores the show, he laughs so hard we can barely hear it,” she said.

“One Wednesday we were watching and he asked to go.”

The family ran into problems when they found that Qantas had an ‘Eagle Lifter’ to put Mr Green into a plane seat, but could not fit his 100-centimetre-tall wheelchair into the hold — their maximum height is 84cm. Jetstar, who could fit the wheelchair, had no lifter. Other airlines also don’t have the necessary equipment.

Carolyn was told that the airlines could not share the necessary equipment, but later that day a Qantas spokesperson confirmed to the media that the airlines would work together to help the family (Jetstar in Australia is wholly owned by Qantas after all).

So, problem solved? … Not so fast!

Qantas made no further contact with Carolyn and after several tries to call them, Carolyn was told “wait for Jetstar”. However Jetstar don’t have a phone number – they are a budget airline – and it took a lot of time and effort for Carolyn to contact the Jetstar media person, but she kept being put off.

Pretty soon it was the day before the planned travel from Adelaide to Melbourne and an executive at Qantas was telling Carolyn how “difficult and hard” the whole thing was. They then tried to charge Carolyn $675 per ticket instead of the $275 advertised at the time Carolyn made the request. Luke requires two carers, meaning a total of four tickets, with the bill now around $2,700 instead of $1,100.

Of the day of travel itself, Carolyn said “I can’t speak highly enough of the airline staff, both groundcrew and flight crew, who were all wonderful. Travability were also fantastic”. However it was all too hard for the executives of both airlines with Qantas advising in writing that they won’t be doing this again and Jetstar saying that the lifters required don’t fit with their low-cost business model.

Policies need to change

In a subsequent ABC interview last Friday 30 November, Carolyn called for the airlines to review their policies to better accommodate travelling with disability. Carolyn said “it’s a human right. It’s not that difficult, it’s not that expensive; for dignity, the ability of universal travel is so important”. Carolyn is intent on advocating for change and is committed to pursuing the issue.

The world of disability access has definitely changed for the better over the years, but there is clearly much more that can be done as in this case of airline travel where not enough is being done compared to other forms of transport. Airline travel is a universal commodity in this day and age, much like buses and trains. It’s a question of access, of inclusion, of non-discrimination. Buildings are remodelled to include ramps, toilet facilities are designed for disability access; buses can be lowered and a lifter extended for wheelchair access at the flick of a switch. Signage, assistance animals, specialised facilities, communications/messaging services, personal assistance from trained staff, planning, education and training are all part of the package of access and travelling with disability in best-practice cases – and best-practice needs to be the benchmark for the airlines.

How about it Mr Joyce?

Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas, has promoted inclusion and diversity in the workplace with energy and passion over a long period. In February, he was named co-patron of national LGBTI workplace inclusion program, Pride in Diversity. It’s hard to imagine Mr Joyce not seeing the issue of airline travel with disability without understanding and compassion. It would be good all round for Qantas to voluntarily take the lead and set a new standard for all to follow. At a time when a significant chunk of corporate Australia is struggling reputationally, Qantas could earn themselves huge points in the “good community member” stakes… but more than that, surely it’s just the right thing to do!

Shaun Micallef, Luke and brother David

Luke’s dream fulfilled

Luke got to Melbourne and met brother David at the ABC. He met funnyman and star of ‘Mad as Hell’ Shaun Micallef and fulfilled a dream. Carolyn said they are hoping to go back to Melbourne for David’s wedding which is planned for March. She said “we don’t even know if Luke will be here in March, we don’t know how long he has got. We just try to give him any joy we can”.


SOURCE: ABC NEWS online, 15 November

Airlines help paralysed man fly to Melbourne after mother’s plea

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