25 Oct 2012

Paralympics presenter not allowed to fly

Sophie Morgan, who investigated the difficulties of air travel for disabled people on Channel 4 News earlier this week, is told by easyJet that she cannot fly unaccompanied because of her disability.

Paralympics presenter not allowed to fly (Reuters)

On Tuesday, Paralympics presenter Sophie Morgan made a film for Channel 4 News about the problems disabled people face when trying to fly, from broken wheelchairs to being unable to access the toilets.

Today, Sophie, who is a wheelchair user, was expecting to fly to Glasgow for work. She travels regularly both for work and pleasure and did not expect any problems.

However, when her travel agent called to book the easyJet flight, she was told that she would not be allowed to fly unaccompanied because of her disability.

EasyJet said they understood from the booking agent that Sophie was unable to reach the emergency exit unaided and as such could not fly alone.

“I was absolutely furious, and it is so ironic after the film this week,” said Sophie.

I was absolutely furious, and it is so ironic after the film this week.

“They basically won’t let me travel on my own because of my disability. How do they expect me to react to this? Our piece looked at some of the issues disabled people face on board a plane – but people can’t even get on board at the moment.”

EasyJet’s policy is that, for safety reasons, people who cannot reach emergency exits unaided must have a companion on board the plane. In Sophie’s case, actually the airline received the wrong information about her mobility – because Sophie is paraplegic, meaning the lower half of her body only is paralysed, she could reach the exits if necessary.

As such, the airline admitted Sophie should have been allowed to book her flight alone, and would be able to do so in future.

A spokeswoman told Channel 4 News: “Unfortunately easyJet was provided with the incorrect information from Sophie’s travel agent, which meant we believed she was unable to travel with us unaccompanied. However, since speaking with Sophie we would be happy to welcome her onboard a flight in the future.”

'Incredible irony' 
The irony of this is incredible, given the report that I did the previous day, writes Sophie Morgan.

The anger and frustration I feel at this situation is hard to articulate. What has happened here, like with many other examples of disability discrimination, is that I have had my ability to choose taken away from me. I am utterly powerless to their policy.

When I tweeted about my situation last night, I was inundated with messages of support and disbelief. Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson also got in touch and vented her fury.

There are so many problems with air travel its hard to know where to start. But I think what's more important are the solutions, to which there are several. I was able to talk with the head of customer services who apologised and "accepted my point" that easyJet seem to have a different set of guidelines than other airlines. I asked if perhaps the airline could provide concessions for the companion who we have to travel with, for example, but little was offered in reply.

It's time that disabled people make the rules under which we have to live. It's wrong that the policies do not understand our basic human rights. I currently feel a mixture of fury and sadness, that despite all my efforts to live my life as a normal human being, I am unable to, and like so many others, I am having my limitations defined for me, my risks evaluated for me and my choices decided for me.

Thankfully Channel 4 are behind me so I have a voice, which I very much intend to use.

Follow @sophmorg on Twitter.

A legacy to stand on?

However, coming in the week Channel 4 News is investigating the legacy of the Paralympics in terms of attitudes to disability via our A legacy to stand on? series, the mix-up in itself illustrates the extra layers of difficulty disabled people face when trying to fly.

Moreover, while easyJet’s policy on reaching the exits is in line with the Civil Aviation Authority’s guidance and European regulations, it is seen by many disabled passengers as a strict interpretation and one which has been challenged in the past.

Earlier this year in France, a court found the airline guilty of discriminating against three disabled passengers for not allowing them onto a plane unaccompanied at Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris. EasyJet was fined 70,000 euros (£56,000).

Read more in the Channel 4 News special report: A legacy to stand on?

“It’s complete discrimination and I don’t understand how they can justify this policy. If they want people to bring a companion they should provide a concession – it’s really impractical, these are massive costs,” said Sophie.

An easyJet spokeswoman told Channel 4 News that the airline could guarantee that a carer or companion would be able to buy a ticket at the same price as the original booking, even if they were added to the flight last-minute.

On the issue over emergency exits, she added: “This is an easyJet policy and it is in line with European guidelines. Our independent advisory group, chaired by David Blunkett, advise us on these issues so we can make sure the policies we have are the right policies.

“It is difficult for airlines because there are various directives we have to obey. One of them is safety and we have to make sure we can safely evacuate all people off the aircraft. The other is the ability for everybody to be able to fly. We try to have the right balance between the two.

“We operate as an airline in a regulated industry where safety has to be our top priority. One thousand passengers with special assistance needs travel with us every single day so a very small minority have problems.”