Air travel equality push

A complicated booking process, being unable to access toilets on board and being restricted to their seat for hours, are all realities for many disabled air travellers.

According to a survey by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign in the UK in 2012, 90 per cent of wheelchair users are unable to access airline toilets.

The report also showed that 60 per cent of passengers felt unsafe when being transferred from a wheelchair to an airline seat.

Coordinator of the report, James Lee said the issues raised in 2012 were just as pertinent now.

“Since the report, very few changes, if any, have been implemented by airlines to accommodate for disabled passengers,” Mr Lee told InkWire from London.

Communications manager at Muscular Dystrophy WA, Brianna O’Donnell, said the problem lay with airlines not understanding specific needs of people with disabilities.

A quadriplegic herself, Ms O’Donnell said that going to the toilet on airplanes was nearly impossible for many people with disabilities.

“When flying I don’t drink any fluids prior to boarding, and minimal during the flight,” she said.


Brianna O’Donnell.

“The longest I ever went was a 14-hour flight without going to the toilet.”

By the end of the flight, Ms O’Donnell said she was often dehydrated and in pain.

Not all airlines provide a wheelchair-accessible toilet on board. And with those that do, the toilets are often not much bigger than a standard aircraft toilet.

This becomes a major obstacle for people like Ms O’Donnell who has significant restriction to movement.

In December last year, Ms O’Donnell and her sister (who is also a quadriplegic) and their mother, went through six months of negotiation with their airline to ensure they had a comfortable flight.

“To make our [travel] dream come true we ended up paying for two extra flights we hadn’t planned on, just so we could get people who were strong enough to lift us to come with us,” she said.

Ms O’Donnell said Qantas had proven to be very accommodating for she and her sister in the past.

She said that Qantas and Air New Zealand are the only airlines that offer a hoist to carry passengers from their seat to their wheelchair.

“Qantas is also the only airline so far that has allowed us to take our chairs past the airplane door,” she said.

Ms O’Donnell said the obstacles only disabled passengers faced when flying often turned them off air travel.

“In this day and age when everyone should have equal rights, especially with the difficulties people who are disabled already face, it’s not fair that travel should also be made that much harder for them,” she said.

Board member from the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, Greg Mason, said disabled passengers had no idea what to expect when they flew.

Requiring the assistance of a guide dog himself, Mr Mason said that most times he flies he is faced with a different regulation the airline has introduced.

“I’ve asked on several occasions to be made aware of these policy changes through email however the email never arrives,” he said.

Mr Mason said often the staff were not aware of the updates in policies, making it difficult for the passenger to be accommodated.

“There needs to be better training to airport staff,” he said.

“The training should be done by people with disabilities rather than people assuming what people with disabilities need.”

Chief of Customer Service for Virgin Blue Australia, Mark Hassell, said the airline was committed to providing a safe and comfortable flight for all customers, particularly those with special needs.

Perth Airport baggage check area

He said Virgin Blue was unable to accommodate a wheelchair in the toilets on board its flights.

Passengers unable to independently go to the toilet on board are asked to travel with a carer or companion.

Both Ms O’Donnell and Mr Mason said it was very difficult to book last minute flights as a disabled passenger due to the restriction of two special needs passengers per flight with most airlines.

Mr Mason said until airlines changed their policies for disabled passengers, air travel would continue to remain challenging for them.

Qantas, Jetstar and Tiger Airways were contacted for comment.

Photography: Nicole Hamer

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