Australia's Airline 2 Wheelchair Policy

20 December 2012

airportAccess to Aviation in Australia today is far more difficult than it should be and far more difficult than both Europe and the United States. The two wheelchair policy that is in place with both Jetstar and Virgin is both counter productive and discriminatory. It is out of sync with international standards and with the practices adopted by both the above airlines when flying to and from the United States from Australia.

The access issues are not limited to the number of wheelchairs per flight but also in the advanced notice required for bookings, boarding practices, lack of curb side assistance, requirements to be accompanied, storage of wheelchairs in the cabin and poor control over damage to personal mobility aids stored in the luggage hold.

We prepared a comparison of airlines and outlined the access available through the US Air Carriers Access Act in our article Airline Access Comparison Table

Today Australia's Human Rights Commission issued the following press release:

Concerns have been raised with the Commission in relation to the policy of certain airlines accepting bookings for only two customers requiring wheelchair assistance on each flight.

Where there are already two bookings made for wheelchair assistance on the flight the customer wishes to book, the airline contacts the customer to make alternative arrangements. These may include moving the customer to a different flight or providing a full refund.

The Commission considers that the concerns that this two wheelchair policy discriminates on the ground of disability should be investigated. The Commission will raise these concerns with the Minister for Transport and consider holding an inquiry into the two wheelchair policy in 2013.

On the surface this looks at a proactive position, however, when history is taken into account it can only interpreted as a weak response to four long years of failure to change Australia's airline industry's attitude towards travelers with a disability. The Australian Human Rights Commission has been a part of a working group to improve access to aviation for the past four years which has failed to bring about any real change in access. It certainly hasn't managed to gain for the Australian traveller anything like the rights enjoyed by travelers internationally. At the same time Commissioner Innes has stood back and allowed individuals undertake expensive court cases to overturn the two wheelchair policy of both Virgin and Jetstar. Without the backing of legislation this is a tall order and to date has been unsuccessful. The Human Rights Commission hasn't just suddenly become aware of the issue through recent complaints, as as far back as 2009 Graeme Innes took advantage of the Kirt Furnely incident to make a long public statement on the fact the Human Rights Commission would no longer tolerate discrimination by the airlines. Commissioner Innes has had ample opportunity to change access in the Australian Aviation industry and if the AAWG had not been getting anywhere why hasn't he been more vocal and openly supported the legal challenges?

By issuing today's statement has the Human Rights Commission admitted that the AAWG has failed to deliver on its terms of reference and is Commissioner Innes now going to resign from the working group?

What are the proposed terms of reference for the new enquiry, what does the Human Rights Commission see as an outcome and who does it propose to consult with to form a view of what it should be seeking for the Australian travelling public?

It is all very well to abandon a process if you have a clear understanding of what is likely to be achieved by doing so, we hope this is the case with this announcement and that it is not simply chest beating.

In early 2009 The Hon Anthony Albanese MP, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and the Hon Bill Shorten MP, then Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children's Services, established the Aviation Access Working Group (AAWG) to provide advice to the Government on disability access policy, the relevant legislative framework and practical measures that can be taken to improve the access to air services for people with a disability.

The first meeting of the group occurred in February 2009.

The Australian Human Rights Commission was a foundation member of the AAWG which had as its terms of reference:

  • Contribute to the National Aviation Policy Statement (the Government's policy on disability access to air travel is outlined in Chapter 5: Consumer Protection, pages 89–91);
  • Contribute to the Government response to the report on the Transport Standards Review and facilitate the implementation of any recommendations (see below for further details);
  • Advise the Government on the practicality and interaction of the existing aviation legislation with the Disability Discrimination Act 1992; and
  • Consider other measures and actions that can provide people with disability access to air travel while ensuring the safety and security of all fare paying passengers.

In December 2009 the Aviation White Paper was released which had as part of its aim to help the industry facilitate people with a disability. At the Time Commission Graeme Innes released the following statement:

Fix the raw airline deal for Australians with disability

With the release of the Australian Government’s Aviation White Paper today, Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, urged the government to ensure airlines and airports have self regulating access facilitation plans for equal treatment of people with disability in place by mid 2010, or face government regulation if they don’t.

“For many Australians with disability, flying is not the pleasant experience it should be,” said Commissioner Innes. "We have seen incidents of inappropriate and undignified treatment of people with disability by airlines feature in the media during the past month, and they are only the tip of the iceberg."

Commissioner Innes said these incidents had included paralympian, Kurt Fearnley, having to crawl through Brisbane airport when his wheelchair was taken from him, as well as people being stranded because of an airline’s refusal to allow a guide dog to travel.

"Airlines have been aware of problems experienced from check-in to check-out for several years, and some have been too slow in dealing with them." Commissioner Innes said. “The Government’s announcement on travel for passengers with disability, as part of its aviation white paper today, is therefore very welcome.”

Commissioner Innes said he congratulated the Australian Government for working, in partnership with the aviation industry and the disability community, to set up a process for the voluntary lodgement, by both airlines and airports, of Disability Access Facilitation Plans. He said these plans, to be made available on the Department of Transport website, will be a public promise, by airlines and airports, of how they will provide equal services for customers with disability.

Calling for these action plans to be lodged by mid 2010, Commissioner Innes said, "If this does not occur, or if their promises are not fulfilled, it will be time for government to regulate equal treatment”.

Mr Innes said there was absolutely no excuse for airlines and airports to have processes in place that make people with disability feel as if they were second class citizens.