Travel. A word that can either bring to mind delight or dread depending on whether you have a disability.
While many individuals eagerly look forward to vacationing, many airlines still have not done enough to ensure that persons with disabilities have a pleasant time travelling.
Although some tourists with disabilities have had good experiences, many do not. On 10 August 2017, the Guardian ran an article about ‘Disabled passengers forced to wait hours to disembark at Heathrow’ and in a Straits Time article from 12 November 2017 Mr Richard Kuppusamy, President of the Disabled People’s Association (DPA), shared about his wheelchair had been damaged in transit and that it took the airlines responsible six weeks to repair it.
Jetstar Asia is an airline which had been recognised as one of the “Top 10 Airlines by Passenger Carriage” by Changi Airline Awards yet, one particular incident took a passenger’s experience to a new low.
Earlier in the year, DPA was approached by Dr Rupa Chandrashekar, a US citizen who recently visited Singapore. As an avid traveller who has travelled to over 75 countries, Dr Chandrashekar has seen her fair share of airline policies as a passenger who uses a wheelchair.
Ushering in her 2018 with Jetstar Asia however, left an indelible mark, and not for the best of reasons.
On January 1, Dr Chandrashekar was travelling from Singapore to Manila, Philippines. After checking in at Changi Airport, she informed the Jetstar agents about her needs regarding the wheelchair at the flight gate. This was in addition to having informed the airlines about her travel needs a month ahead of time. In her past experience, she would have given her wheelchair at the gate, boarded the airplane, and then received it again at the gate upon arrival.
This time however, she was informed that her wheelchair would be going into baggage claim. Even with the best of airlines, seasoned travellers would know that any wheelchair handled like baggage can be damaged. Dr Chandrashekar refused, stating that this was highly unusual and that her wheelchair was fragile. Only to be told by Jetstar Asia agents that her exchange was causing the flight to be delayed, although there was still 30 minutes left of boarding time, and she would need to wait till after all passengers had boarded.
After boarding the remaining passengers, Jetstar Asia agents informed her that they had decided to take her off the flight list for being “a disruptive passenger”. Jetstar Asia staff did not provide any assistance with finding an alternative flight for Dr Chandrashekar nor did she receive any assistance whilst going between various Changi Airport terminals trying to find another flight to the Philippines. After four hours, she managed to get a flight with Philippines Airlines at her own cost.
Dr Chandrashekar wrote in to Jetstar Asia to complain about how she was treated.
Here is Jetstar Asia’s response:
“If they feel that your behaviour is disruptive in any way, it is their responsibility to act. In the interest of flight and passenger safety, Jetstar Asia has a strict policy of denying boarding to any customer, or offloading any customer who makes inappropriate comments or behaves inappropriately inflight or on the ground. Our airport staff and/or crew will only allow a passenger on to a plane if they believe that his or her behaviour will not disturb or affect the safety or comfort of others.
On the date in question, our staff formed the view that your behaviour was unacceptable and subsequently decided to offload you from the flight. While I understand that this was disappointing for you, I’m afraid you agreed to these conditions when you made your booking.
I’m sorry to hear your feedback about the way our staff dealt with this situation. Please be assured that your comments will be forwarded to the team involved to assist with training and performance management.”
It is highly unbecoming when an airline, a service provider, does not take responsibility for the poor customer service received by a passenger, failing to address that wheelchairs can be brought to the aircraft door, and instead places the blame in its entirety on the passenger.
We urge Jetstar Asia to look at its processes to be an airline that caters to everyone’s needs, not just for passengers without disabilities.
In stark contrast to how Dr Chandrashekar was treated by Jetstar Asia staff, the counter staff at Philippines Airlines listened to Dr Chandrashekar’s requests and knew about wheelchair handling procedures. At the boarding gate, Dr Chandrashekar again requested that her wheelchair be at the gate in Manila and the Philippines airlines staff sent a message to their counterparts at Manila airport. When arriving in Manila, the inflight crew again informed the ground staff about Dr Chandrashekar’s request and her wheelchair was waiting for her at the gate.
Dr Chandrashekar is understandably upset about this incident and reflecting on it she says:
“As I think about this incident, it angers me that Jetstar Asia would treat me in such a way for having a voice and advocating for myself and about my disability. If voicing my concerns is “disruptive behaviour” then, that’s a shame. I cannot believe that Jetstar Asia would treat people with disabilities in such a way.”
DPA reached out to Jetstar Asia customer service a couple of times to discuss what happened with Dr Chandrashekar, but did not receive any response.