Kuching – Day 2: October 22, 2012

The room was very cold. Turning up the thermostat did not make any difference. Victor had to wrap me up to keep me warm. I did not sleep very well. The unfamiliar mattress and pillows exacerbated the situation. The room also reeked of stale cigarette smoke odour. Why the hotel allowed guests to smoke in the room and stink it up is beyond my comprehension.

Toasts, butter, baked beans and sunny side up
My favourite breakfast.
Photo taken with Samsung Galaxy S III.

At first light, I got up to get ready for breakfast. I am not a breakfast person but I needed the energy and also to ensure that my blood glucose level is maintained. My favourite is a sandwich of toasted bread with a generous spread of butter, scrambled eggs and baked beans. The scrambled eggs did not look appetising. Victor recommended the sunny side up instead which was not a bad choice actually.

By the time I arrived at the seminar room, it was already teeming with participants. I went to check on my slides. Everything was in order. With half an hour more to go, I went back to my room which was on the same floor to catheterise and to put on a jacket. Good thing I decided to don a jacket for this event. Even with that many people, it was still freezing cold in the seminar room.

Peter Tan conducting a Disability Equality Training in Kuching, Sarawak
Peter Tan conducting Disability Equality Training (DET) at the Sarawak Supported Employment Seminar in Kuching.
Photo by Victor Chin.

The session went well with active involvement from the participants. The topic of “What is disability?” focused on the causes of disability, the difference between impairment and disability, the Medical Model of Disability and Social Model of Disability. The 150 participants were from Community-Based Rehabilitation centres and Non-Governmental Organisation all over Sarawak.

Peter Tan conducting a Disability Equality Training session in Kuching, Sarawak
View from the back of the seminar room.
Photo by Victor Chin.

When I was about to conclude, to my horror, the LCD projector lost video signal. My heart skipped several beats as the climax of the entire session hung on the few slides that I had yet to show. I did not realise that the laptop was being powered by battery. It was plugged back to the main power supply and rebooted. Fortunately, everything went on smoothly after that for me to wrap the session up.

Meeting Pierce for the first time
Pierce and I have known each other online for 9 years but this was the first time we met face to face.
Photo by Victor Chin.

The highlight of the day was meeting Pierce. We got acquainted from our blogging days about 9 years ago. He was very vocal in supporting disability rights that I was advocating for. Then Facebook came along and we got better connected via social media. When I had problems with Streamyx, he put me through to the proper channels to resolve those issues. He is one of those angels that is always looking out for me. Thank you, Pierce!

Joanna, who was there to cover the seminar, had a few more interview questions for me. Together with Pierce, we found a quieter spot in the Secretariat Room to continue with our conversation. After Joanna left to follow the other session of the seminar, Pierce and I continued with our conversations right through lunch. And then he offered to drop Victor and I off at the airport as we wanted to get there earlier than the pre-arranged time.

Cemetery along the way to the Kuching International Airport
There were several of such cemeteries along the way to the Kuching International Airport.

Pierce took a longer than usual route to the airport to avoid the traffic jam. It was scenic as it was macabre. There were several cemeteries by the road along the journey. The graves were well maintained though unlike those in Penang that were usually overgrown with lalang. We reached the airport with two hours to spare before boarding. While Pierce went to park the car, Victor and I went to check in my luggage.

We had problem using the the self check-in terminal as my ticket was tagged with special service request. A very helpful Malaysia Airlines counter staff helped check us in and put in a note for an aisle chair at the boarding gate.

With some time to kill still, Pierce, Victor and I lounged at Starbucks for a while. Pierce is a veritable tome of good Kuching food. I hope he will be our guide when I return to the city the next time. I appreciate the fact that he spent his entire day with us, from my early morning session at the seminar, then sending us to the airport and hanging out with us again until we had to get to the boarding lounge. That surely must be Sarawak hospitality at its best!

Waiting to board at the Kuching International Airport
Our ride home at the Kuching International Airport.

The journey back was uneventful. I tried to catch forty winks in the plane but the thought of being able to see Wuan and the cats again kept me awake. My fear of the wheelchair being mishandled was unfounded. The ground crew were very professional in managing it.

Victor must be credited for making this trip possible for me. Without his support, I would have to reject the invitation. He had made it easy for me to do what I was there for while he managed the rest.

I would also like to thank the team from JICA, especially Terumi for the travel arrangements, Swee Lan for the support during the seminar and the officers from the Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat Negeri Sarawak, namely Puan Hadiah, Penolong Pengarah Seksyen Orang Kurang Upaya, for the hospitality. I will definitely make a trip back to Kuching to enjoy the sights and sounds and savour the food that this city has to offer.

My Fear Of Flying Again

I am no stranger to travelling by plane. There was a time between 2005 and 2007 when I commuted frequently between Penang and Kuala Lumpur and to other places by flight. It was the most convenient way for me to travel between the two cities since express buses and trains were not that accessible.

I will be travelling again in a couple of days but there is this nagging fear that has been bothering me. This will be the first time I am flying with my Tilite ZRA S2 wheelchair. Having had first-hand experience of having my wheelchair irreparably damaged during one of my trips in 2005, I am worried my wheelchair may be mishandled again.

While Malaysia Airlines compensated me fully for the damaged wheelchair due to the collective complaints from other bloggers, the process of getting a replacement while using the damaged chair was very inconvenient. The wheelchair that I used at that time was a standard lightweight wheelchair that was available in most shops selling rehabilitation equipment. The one I am using now is ultra lightweight, fully customised and handmade in the USA, and costs ten times as much.

Malaysia Airlines recommends that passengers purchase additional baggage insurance to cover loss or damage of valuable and important documents. The Tilite is a vital piece of hardware that I cannot do without. My very mobility and independence depend on it. It is as valuable as anything else can be to me.

MHInsure, the company providing travel insurance to Malaysia Airlines passengers, do not provide cover for specific items other than the three fixed insurance plans that they offer. The highest compensation for damaged or lost baggage is RM3,000. That is less than a quarter of the cost of my wheelchair.

Should the wheelchair frame or any of the parts become damaged, replacing them will be expensive, not to mention that it may take two weeks or more for the parts to arrive from the USA, and severely restrict my mobility for that duration.

It is no fun going on a trip and having to worry what the condition the wheelchair will be when it comes out from the cargo hold. Having a totalled wheelchair in a foreign land will be very devastating for the disabled person. The problem of being stranded may cascade into serious health problems such as pressure sores.

Airlines or the parties providing baggage handling services should train their staff to be more careful when moving wheelchairs. I pray the baggage handlers will be kind to my wheelchair on this trip and all my other upcoming trips.

BEAT, AirAsia, MAHB and Aerobridges at KLIA2

The Barrier-Free Environment and Accessible Transport Group (BEAT) held a protest at Taman Jaya in Petaling Jaya yesterday (The Star – Group wants aerobridges at KLIA 2 – October 24, 2011) against the omission of aerobridges at KLIA2. BEAT is a cross-disability coalition with representation from disabled persons organisations (DPO) based in the Klang Valley. According to the group, the protest was “to reaffirm our call for aerobridges to be installed at KLIA2 for the safety, security and comfort of all passengers including disabled persons, elderly, children, pregnant women, parents with children in prams.” The first protest on the same issue was held at Bangsar LRT station on August 20, 2011.

I wholeheartedly support the call for aerobridges at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 (KLIA2). Currently, people with mobility limitations board aircrafts at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT-KLIA) using passenger boarding lift (ambulift) or have to be carried up the boarding stairs. AirAsia passengers who need to use the lift have to inform the airline 48 hours in advance failing which boarding could be denied. There is only one such lift at the LCCT-KLIA for this purpose.

The passenger boarding lift may not be available at all times. It could unavailable because it is being used for boarding at another aircraft at the same time. It could also be due to breakdown or maintenance. When this happens, disabled passengers have to be carried up the boarding stairs via the side-by-side two-person lift method. In my experience, this is not a safe way to board the plane or disembark from it. The steps of the boarding stairs are narrow and slippery. There are many things that could go wrong. The lifters may not have the skills for such lifting. They could lose their grip or lose their footing on the steps. One of them could lose strength on the way up.

I have been carried three times up and three time down like this and each time the fear of the three of us falling off the stairs overwhelmed me. There was one time when I was nearly dropped. The lifters, after hauling me up the stairs and into the aircraft, could not find a place to sit me down. They were exhausted and were fast losing their grip. Fortunately, a cabin crew quickly directed them to use the jump seat. Experiences like this are really not a good way to begin or end the journey with.

The aerobridge or passenger boarding bridge or jet bridge, is safe, convenient and comfortable to board and disembark from aircrafts. They protect passengers from the element, be it rain or shine. There is no need for passengers to huff and puff up the stairs with their luggages, children in tow or baby prams. The aerobridge makes it convenient for children and senior citizens without them having to climb up the stairs. It is a good example of universal design of facilities that benefit everyone.

The decision by Malaysia Airport Holdings Berhad (MAHB) not to install the aerobridges stemmed from AirAsia’s resistance in using them. The budget airline’s business model requires a quick 25-minute turnaround time for its aircrafts and no-frills service. Using aerobridges would purportedly increase the turnaround time and increase the airfare.

MAHB has revealed that it charges RM85 for the use of each aerobridge. Based on the full load of an Airbus A320 with 180 passengers, this translates to a mere 25 sen per passenger for an arriving and departing flight. MAHB stated that the design of the KLIA2 has provisions to accommodate the installation of aerobridges at any time when required AirAsia or other low-cost carriers (LCC).

While I support BEAT’s call for the installation of aerobridges at the KLIA2, I am of the opinion that the protest against MAHB was misdirected. True, MAHB is bending backwards by giving exemption to AirAsia for not using aerobridges. MAHB should be faulted for this but looking at the big picture, AirAsia is ultimately the source of this issue.

AirAsia and AirAsia X are the major airlines using the KLIA2. It makes no business sense for MAHB to install the 80 aerobridges at the cost of RM104 million if they are not going to be used. Each aerobridge costs RM1.3 million. It must be noted that AirAsia and AirAsia X are compelled to use aerobridges in foreign airports where no exemption is given for them not to.

BEAT has established a working relationship with AirAsia after the protest at the LCCT-KLIA in 2007. Its members conduct regular trainings for the airline’s cabin crew and ground crew in support and services for disabled passengers. BEAT also holds dialogues with the management of the airline on related issues. Therefore, BEAT should use its relationship and influence to advocate to AirAsia on the pertinent need for aerobridges at KLIA2.

In fact, I was involved in a five-day Training of Trainers for AirAsia Disability Equality Training (DET) and Disability Related Service Training (DRST) at AirAsia Academy that concluded last Friday. This five-day course was organised by BEAT under the auspices of AirAsia to equip disabled trainers from Indonesia and Thailand with the same methodology and modules for them to train AirAsia staff in their respective countries. To AirAsia’s credit, it is expanding the training for the ground crew and cabin crew in countries where it has a presence in order for disabled passengers to be better served.

On the contrary, in deciding not to use aerobridges at KLIA2, AirAsia has taken several steps backward. It is a shame that the most modern purpose-built low cost carrier terminal that costs more than RM2 billion will require passengers walk out on the tarmac and use boarding stairs. Even the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) and the Board of Airline Representatives were of the view that KLIA2 neeeds to have aerobridges, as reported in The Edge (Provisions made for aerobridges at KLIA2, Dewan Rakyat told – October 17, 2011).

Instead of taking AirAsia to task over this matter, BEAT has chosen to demonise MAHB instead. The root cause of this issue is glaringly not pointed out. There was little mention of AirAsia in the two protests. Why is BEAT playing tai chi here? Why is BEAT not grabbing the bull by the horns? Why is BEAT beating around the bush? Why has BEAT failed to advocate effectively to AirAsia on the need for aerobridges? These are questions begging answers.