Australia’s airlines and airports urged to improve treatment of travellers with disabilities

Disability royal commissioner writes to company bosses after hearing of people dropped on the floor and discrimination against assistance dogs

The chair of the disability royal commission has written to Australian airline and airport chiefs about improving their treatment of travellers with disabilities, after the inquiry heard stories of people dropped on the floor and discrimination against assistance dogs.

The royal commission has so far heard that people with disabilities are routinely subject to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation when flying domestically, with participants telling the inquiry they felt airlines were “dehumanising” them and that complaints were rarely followed up. Advocates have told Guardian Australia that complaining through the Australian Human Rights Commission is often the only way to seek recourse.

In a letter sent to the various chief executives this week, Ronald Sackville KC outlined concerns that people with disabilities have reported to the royal commission, with travellers frequently facing “inaccessible facilities and services” and “unhelpful practices and systems adopted by airlines”.

Sackville listed shortcomings raised by people with disabilities that airlines and airports could address to make flying “a more inclusive experience”.

“People with disability often experience avoidable challenges when travelling by air,” Sackville wrote. “More can be done by airlines and domestic airports to address those challenges.”

Sackville wrote about how people with disabilities had told the commission that their wheelchairs had been damaged during travel and that airlines had not taken responsibility to rectify the issue.

He also outlined stories of travellers with disability who were dropped on the floor because the hoist that accommodates wheelchairs was not being used correctly by air staff.

Limited access to safe ramps and discrimination against people who rely on assistance dogs was also flagged by the commissioner.

Sackville’s letter follows workshops with 60 Australians with a disability last year about their experiences, which also found that discrimination and poor service were more prominent amid flight cancellations – which were at record levels in the middle of last year.

People with disabilities said they were seen as an “afterthought” when passengers on cancelled flights were managed.

“When issues are brought to them, they are easily dismissed and not taken seriously,” one participant said.

The royal commission’s insights follow the Guardian’s reporting of travellers with a disability being rejected assistance and left stranded at airports – with their complaints falling on deaf ears.

In August, Tony Jones, who relies on a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury, lodged a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission after he was turned away at the gate when trying to board a Jetstar flight in Sydney.

Lawyers representing Jones have said there are low levels of industry compliance with disability standards, and that the onus is not on airlines and airports to comply but rather on individuals to make discrimination complaints – with the AHRC the only avenue.

In June, a French national with severe spinal cord damage after being shot during a terrorist attack in Paris said he was left in an airbridge at Sydney airport with his young family for more than an hour. In December, a man requiring a wheelchair said he was removed from his Qatar Airways flight after boarding the plane and left stranded at Melbourne airport because of his disability.

A statement on behalf of Qantas and Jetstar said the airline group was “considering the matters raised”. “Qantas and Jetstar are working hard to improve the experience for customers with accessibility needs.”

A Virgin Australia spokesperson said it would be giving the royal commission’s letter “very close consideration”. “We know how important it is to ensure we make airline travel inclusive and accessible for all our guests.”

Guardian Australia also contacted Rex for comment.

Speaking generally about the issues air travellers with disability face, James Goodwin, the chief executive of the Australian Airports Association, said the industry had launched initiatives with members about hidden disabilities.

Goodwin also said issues had been more pronounced in the past year given the pandemic exodus of aviation staff and a largely new, less experienced workforce filling their shoes.

“Airports continue to work with other parts of the industry – including government agencies that operate at airports – and stakeholders to share information so we can continue to promote inclusive and consistent practices,” Goodwin said.


Elias Visontay Transport and urban affairs reporter

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