We have been hearing some really disastrous stories lately with regards to the airlines and their handling of passengers with disabilities, and time and again the root of the problem seems to be lack of information given the to airline PRIOR to the departure date, together with a lack of understanding of all the needs and rights of persons with disabilities.
All of our domestic airlines are willing to carry passengers with disabilities, but they have to have the relevant information in order to do so.
The CAA regulations state that there can be one passenger needing assistance per 20 seats sold or part thereof. This means that whichever aircraft is used, defines the amount of seats available for people who need assistance. On an average the number is four but this can vary. Please remember that this number will also include unaccompanied minors (a cause for concern within the disability sector).
Making a Booking
You need to make sure that certain information is given to the airline via a direct call for Internet reservations, or through your travel agent.
For passengers requiring assistance from the check-in to their seat there are standard sets of information which assist the airlines. These will be requested by the airline, through the Travel Agent, but will not necessarily be requested if you book online. An example of the information that airlines need is:
* State disability - Passenger is a paraplegic/quadriplegic
* Age, weight and ability - 46 years old, can sit upright throughout flight, weight 80kg
* Needs (Toilet/eating) - Can see to own needs
* Travelling with an assistant- Is travelling with an assistant / or is travelling alone
These are the codes which need to be inserted by the reservation clerk into the booking to assist the airlines. For example:
WCHR - Can climb stairs
WCHS - Cannot climb stairs
WCHC - Completely immobile
If you require a wheelchair from the drop off area you will have to go to the check in counter of the airline that you will be using and request one. If you are flying SAA, you can request to be met at the drop off area or parking area by someone from Optima Handling.
If you have your own wheelchair or Mobility Aid, then you need to state whether it is a push chair or power chair in which case you need to state if you have wet or dry cell batteries. These batteries must be disconnected and terminals sealed.
The airlines have their specific seats for passengers who need assistance, but you can ask for a window seat if you are able to move yourself over, most people with disabilities will stay on the aisle. Always make sure that your assistant travelling is seated next to you, as this isn’t automatically done. If you are classified WCHC (cannot walk) you will normally be seated close to the back of the aircraft and you will be boarded via the Passenger Aid Unit, operated by Optima or CHS. Most airlines have specific seats whereby the armrest folds up for easy transfer. If the armrest does not fold up and you need to transfer, this can prove to be difficult.
Meal preferencesShould you or your assistant have any meal preferences such as vegetarian, high protein meals, you should include this information when making your reservation as most airlines require at least 72 hours prior to departure to arrange special meals.
When checking in your bags, and if you have your own wheelchair, always ask for your wheelchair to be tagged, as an extra precaution. Once you have checked in – you will be shown to the waiting area used for all passengers requiring assistance. Make sure that you know what time they will be fetching you for boarding, as you may be overlooked!
You may advise the staff in the holding area, if you want to go to the airline lounge and be collected there. (This is providing you have the necessary accreditation to use the lounge).
Should you need to use the toilet facilities, inform one of the staff where you are. Make sure that you are at your pick up point at the time they have given you.
There are three companies’ servicing the various airlines with ground support, Equity Aviation, Optima Handling and CHS. It is these staff members who will make sure that you are boarded and your wheelchair is loaded onto the aircraft. They will fetch you from the waiting area and assist you through the security checks to the special waiting area in the domestic departures hall and from there onto the aircraft. Presently, these contractors to the various airlines are going through awareness training, so we should start seeing the benefits of this.
There are two Passenger Aid Unit (PAU) contractors at most airports for the various airlines and aircraft. Boarding procedures, if you are WCHC vary, depending on the configuration of the aircraft.
In an Airbus or Boeing you will be boarded from the PAU, normally from the back. You can choose to be taken to your seat in a Slipper chair or a Washington chair. With smaller aircraft, you will be boarded with the Washington Chair. (Make sure the seat belts are used and work properly).
You will be loaded into the relevant PAU and transferred to the aircraft, where you are usually boarded at the rear of the plane. You will be assisted onto the Slipper chair from your own wheelchair within the PAU and then assisted to the plane seat. Your assistant is entitled to travel to the aircraft in the PAU with you.
Obviously the reverse procedure will occur on arrival at your destination. You will be asked to wait until all the other passengers have disembarked before the flight crew let the PAU team on-board.
Passengers with sight impairments and who are blind will not necessarily be boarded with this PAU and have the opportunity to be assisted to their seat together with all the other passengers.
We all have rights to dignity in boarding and safety, ensure you retain those. QASA is represented on the Airline Forum and if you have any positive suggestions or problems, drop us an email.