Widespread Discrimination of Disabled Passengers by Low-Cost Airlines

Scott Rains alerted me to the following news report. It seems that the act of discrimination against wheelchair users is not limited to Malaysia’s AirAsia. The Hindustan Times news titled Airline Displays Callousness in December 19 reported that Sanjiv Sachdeva was asked to sign a bond to absolve Jetlite from all responsibilities should anything happen to him in a flight on December 16. Jetlite is an India-based low cost carrier. Sanjiv has filed a complaint with the Directorate General of Aviation and the Commissioner of Diabilities.

In the same newspaper report, another wheelchair user Mahesh Chandrashekar was subjected to similar conditions by Deccan, India’s first low-fare airline. Mahesh was reported to have said that the language used in the indemnity form sounded prejudiced, embarrassing, derogatory and appeared as if a favour has been doled out to a passenger with disability who is travelling on a fully-paid ticket.

Indemnity forms are worded in such a way that the person who signed it absolves the airline from all blame should anything happen. Too bad if that person dies or is injured as a result of flying with the airline. To add insult to injury, if the airline has to incur additional costs because of that person, the said person has to bear all that. Tell me, where is justice in that? Heads I lose. Tails also I lose. Mana boleh? Unbelievable? Go read the indemnity form that Airsia made me sign.

Airlines dive in survey of disabled passenger satisfaction: The Sydney Morning Herald – December 17, 2007

The following news report by The Sydney Morning Herald regarding air travel for disabled people in Australia is equally relevant here in Malaysia in the wake of unfair conditions imposed by AirAsia on disabled people.

Airlines dive in survey of disabled passenger satisfaction

Bonny Symons-Brown
December 17, 2007

PEOPLE with disabilities have significantly more trouble accessing airline services than five years ago, despite the introduction of a national standard to protect them.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre surveyed 110 people with disabilities, their carers or advocates and found that only 14 had an overall positive experience when dealing with airlines.

Its report concludes that there has been “a systemic failure of airlines to improve access”. It has been submitted to a federal government five-year review of disability standards for accessible public transport.

The standards are a regulatory framework for all modes of public transport but there is no compliance monitoring or licensing requirement for airlines to meet the standards.

Even if the airlines do meet the standards, the report warned, the standards do not adequately protect the human rights of people with disabilities.

The complaints included airline announcements that delays were due to a wheelchair passenger, travel being refused unless the disabled person was accompanied by a carer, and broken wheelchairs due to negligent handling. In one case, a passenger was left on the tarmac with no assistance to the terminal entrance.

The centre’s chief executive officer, Robin Banks, said restrictive airline policies on aids such as wheelchairs or assistance animals and inadequate communication between staff and customers with a disability had lead to negative experiences for many disabled travellers.

“People reported things like they felt humiliated or they felt embarrassed, some of them said they wouldn’t be flying again, and the sense that people were afraid of the experience being repeated,” she said.

“The other really strong and common theme is a sense of frustration and a sense that the person they were dealing with couldn’t resolve, or was unwilling to attempt to resolve, the problem.”

The report, co-ordinated with the NSW Disability Discrimination Legal Centre, calls for an airline-specific code of practice to be developed in consultation with people with disabilities and administered by a relevant federal transport agency; mandatory reporting requirements, with data released annually; training courses in disability management for all airline staff; and an industry-based complaints process.

Ms Banks said that in a country such as Australia, where air travel was an important part of public transport, people with disabilities should not continue to confront accessibility problems.

Airlines, Indemnity Forms And Disability Advocates

Is the act of forcing wheelchair users sign indemnity forms before allowing them to board commercial flights a form of discrimination? That depends on who is answering the question. Some may ask why I am harping on this issue again. I am still annoyed, that is why. This entry is also inspired by a news article titled Airlines warned not to bar disabled in The Australian today. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Public Interest Advocacy Centre and disability groups in Australia are pursuing cases against airlines that imposes discriminatory policies against disabled air travellers.

I have flown with Japan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia. AirAsia is the only airlines that compels wheelchair users to sign an indemnity form before allowing them to board the aircraft. I have no complaints whatsoever against Japan Airlines. Their in-flight service was impeccable. I told them that I needed to go to the toilet at a certain time. The cabin crew came with an aisle chair right on the dot and assisted me to the toilet and back. I had several issues with Malaysia Airlines but they responded to my complaints politely when I wrote to them regarding the non-availability of an on-board aisle chair on my flight from Kuala Lumpur to Incheon and back. They even offered me one complimentary return ticket to any destination in Asia to make up for the shortfall in service which I declined.

AirAsia? The reply to the entry that I forwarded to them was disappointing. According to them the indemnity form is a requirement by their insurers and they are working to remove that condition imposed on wheelchair users. It was a premature move on my part to kick up a fuss when the process was still on-going. Nevertheless, I would like to reveal the double-standard that is being practiced. Members of BEAT who fly with AirAsia are encouraged to call up the management to make prior flight arrangements where they may not even be compelled to sign the indemnity form. Wheelchair users who are not part of BEAT and do not have access to AirAsia management do not have that privilege as evident by the other two wheelchair users whom I witnessed signing the forms at Kota Kinabalu. What kind of advocacy is that?

Although I was advised beforehand to make prior arrangements I did not because I wanted to experience for myself the kind of procedures that wheelchair users have to go through. Only then could I discover the kinks in the system. Having experienced it and revealed the bad experience to members of BEAT, I was blamed for causing irreparable damage to the group. I was expected to channel my grievances through selected people who would then create avenues for me to voice out my dissatisfaction. Apparently, the truth had to be filtered to make certain parties look good. See the difference in the RapidKL advocacy where nobody in BEAT reacted to the entries that were critical of the bus operator. That tells a lot, does it not? Harapkan pagar, pagar makan padi. That was why I left.

I shall not say more but allow my blogger friends cum disability advocates from around the world share with you their viewpoints on this issue of wheelchair users being compelled to sign indemnity forms.

My story – AirAsia Still Practices Discrimination Against Disabled People
Dr. Scott Rains – Picking on the Wrong Passenger: AirAsia Gambles on Discrimination
Eleanor Lisney – Air Asia Discrimination against disabled passsengers
Ivan Chew – Case of AirAsia and its provisions for People With Disabilities