Disabled passenger loses wheelchair at Sydney airport

Meandering queues, canceled flights and lost bags have been the story of air travel this year, but passengers with disabilities say they are overlooking the current wave of chaos at Australian airports, with some saying they feel humiliated when they see forced to stand or sit on the ground waiting for wheelchairs.

Simon, who has severe spinal cord damage and nerve pain, had been traveling with his Australian wife Maisie and daughter Lucy for more than 24 hours when they arrived at Sydney airport in early June.

Simon, who lives with his family in Paris, was left 80% disabled after being shot during a terrorist attack in Paris in 2015. He needs a wheelchair for long distances and had notified his airline, Thai Airways, in advance. who needed wheelchairs. at airports, smoothly transiting through Bangkok airport in the early stages of the journey.

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However, when his flight landed at Sydney airport shortly after 8pm, Simon says he and other disabled passengers waiting for help on the airlift were told there were no wheelchairs immediately available. . Instead, those who could were told to walk to the terminal where a buggy would transport them to customs.

Given the severity of his disability, Simon was unable to walk to the buggy, so he and another traveler had to wait inside the shuttle.

“Once we got out of the plane door, we were stuck there, there wasn’t even a chair to sit on, so we had to sit on the floor while Simon was standing,” Maisie said.

No workers were available to provide information, and the family became concerned when they saw cabin crew exit the plane and walk past them through the air bridge.

“At first the worker who told us there were no wheelchairs said they would come back. But we were completely alone, I couldn’t find anyone at all. He was walking back and forth through the arrival gates, I couldn’t find a single person,” Maisie said.

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After 9:00 pm, when the airport began to close for the night, the family was worried about straying too far from the airlift where they had been told to wait. Three-year-old Lucy was desperate to use a bathroom, “but we were stuck, we had to wait there,” Maisie said.

Meanwhile, Simon began to hurt.

“I was in terrible pain, and when you’re exhausted, the nerve pain shoots up,” Maisie said.

At that time, the family saw a wheelchair nearby, but when they went to take it to Simon, an airport worker told them that he could not use it because it was not owned by the company that Thai Airways contracted to help passengers who required wheelchairs. wheel. She sat on it anyway.

“This was indignity, that’s what it felt like,” Simon said.

Finally, after more than an hour of waiting, an aid worker returned with a wheelchair. She apologized to the family, telling them that she was the only worker on the list to provide wheelchairs to passengers and that she had just returned after helping another passenger with a wheelchair through customs.

The wheelchair that arrived was “totally broken” and “embarrassing,” Simon said.

The worker urged the family to complain about their experience.

“We have traveled a lot in the eight years that he has had a disability. Even when you stop over in third world countries, they have wheelchairs. And we had flown for 24 hours from Paris, and even there, where the airport workers were on strike, there was no problem for him,” says Maisie.

“In other countries they normally give priority to people with more severe disabilities.”

Simon wrote to Sydney Airport to draw attention to the problem, only receiving a response after Guardian Australia contacted the airport. “We pay for our tickets, this is a service that should be offered to the public, we are not a charity,” he said. Simon is now worried about the next flights he has booked through Sydney airport.

Amid the labyrinthine distribution of private contracts and service providers at Sydney Airport, neither the airport, the airline nor the ground handling contractor accepted responsibility for Simon’s experience.

A Sydney airport spokesperson stressed that airlines are responsible for their own wheelchairs and the passenger allocation process.

However, in a response sent to Simon, Sydney Airport said: “We regret that the airline did not direct you to a seating area while you waited for the airline to bring you a wheelchair.”

“We have instructed our team to review the area in question to assess why there was no seating option on this occasion,” the airport said.

Thai Airways contracts with Menzies Aviation to provide ground services at Sydney Airport. Guardian Australia understands that Thai Airways is investigating the incident, but did not receive a response after repeated attempts to contact the airline.

Menzies Aviation declined to answer questions.

Guardian Australia is aware of several other cases of passengers with mobility problems who have encountered difficulties traveling through Australian airports in recent months.

An aviation source told Guardian Australia that while Simon’s experience would alarm any airline or company involved, the shortage of disabled support staff in ground handling teams is just one symptom of the chronic structural problems in the airline. aviation industry.

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After the aviation sector was decimated by border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic and government supports ended before travel levels returned to pre-pandemic levels, thousands of employees were they lost their jobs and entered new industries.

While aviation companies have been on a hiring blitz lately – Sydney Airport alone has lost 15,000 workers compared to pre-pandemic numbers – many of the new workers are new to the industry. According to another industry source, many ground handling and security workers have quit their jobs due to stress amid the chaotic scenes in recent travel periods.

“When you have 50 weird airlines using contractors to provide wheelchairs and a constant shortage of staff in those businesses, well, when there’s a busy weekend on domestic flights for every airline, there just aren’t enough people at the airport to help. to all. who needs it,” the source said.

“At many larger airports overseas, the airport provides a central wheelchair service for all airlines, but in Australia it sits with the individual airline. If someone is given a wheelchair that isn’t owned by the contractor, and there’s an accident, they might fear they’ll be sued and not insured…”

“But they have to do better than standing someone with a spinal cord injury while there are empty wheelchairs.”

Do you know more? Contact elias.visontay@theguardian.com

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