Disabled man tells of airline woes

By Steve Deane

Flyer says staff unsympathetic when chair trouble caused him to just miss check-in

Philip Patston. Photo / Janna Dixon
Philip Patston. Photo / Janna Dixon

A disabled passenger says he was barred from boarding a flight after he missed check-in by three minutes when his electric wheelchair broke down.

Philip Patston says he encounters frequent problems travelling through Auckland Airport and is speaking out after a report in yesterday's Herald about an Air NZ frequent flyer who refused to give up her front-row seat for paraplegic Tanya Black.

An aisle chair needed to transport Ms Black to row three was not initially available.

Mr Patston, who has cerebral palsy, was scheduled to travel on an Air NZ flight to Wellington last Friday with two colleagues but was held up when his chair malfunctioned.

He said he was "rudely told" by check-in staff that he would be placed on the following flight. But there was no air bridge to accommodate him as he wasn't expected on the flight, and he had to be forklifted on to the aircraft from the tarmac.

Mr Patston, a comedian and head of advocacy group Diversity NZ, has complained to the airline.

"My colleagues and I understand completely the need for tight rules on flight check-in closures," he said. "What we objected to was a complete lack of empathy, understanding or apology from the staff member."

Air NZ said last night that it would respond to Mr Patston directly. It would not comment on the incident. Speaking generally, it said it carried more than 70,000 passengers requiring wheelchairs globally each year.

"As with all of our customers we work hard to ensure their travel with us is comfortable and convenient.

"In recent years we have gone to great lengths to develop technology which will improve the experience of our customers who require wheelchairs and in fact a full review of the ways we can further enhance the service we provide to customers with disabilities of any kind has been underway for a couple of months and is nearing conclusion."

Innovations included specially-designed slide boards and lifts to assist passengers in transferring from a wheelchair to their seat. It had $250,000 worth of purpose-built wheelchairs on order and was working to design new boarding chairs and onboard aisle chairs.

The company also sponsored and supported a number of individuals and organisations which worked with people with disabilities, including Starjam, an organisation working with young people with disabilities.

But Mr Patston said on another occasion his wheelchair was left off his flight, so he had to wait 90 minutes at Wellington airport for it to be sent from Auckland on a later flight, and he missed a meeting as a result.

He said Air NZ should have had an aisle chair available for Ms Black.

"The passenger sounds a little bit ungenerous. But if they'd booked a front row seat, technically they've got no obligation to say, 'Okay we booked to sit in the front but now we'll sit two rows back because you guys didn't do your jobs'."

But Ms Black expressed sympathy for the airline yesterday, saying its treatment of disabled passengers had steadily improved in recent years.

Many Herald readers were appalled by the "elite gold" passenger's refusal to change seats.

"I was seated in 3F window, two seats along from Ms Black. Had I and others known that there was an issue with the seating I would have intervened myself ..." wrote Mark Ching.

American Will Weatherbee wrote: "I cannot believe that an individual would be so trite as to not give up a 1A seat for a disabled person ... I was disabled with a broken foot once, and I could not believe how people would rush in front of me or push me out of the way."

- NZ Herald

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