By Ginger Gorman
"These individuals are actually treating us like dogs. This is how you feel. It's literally like, 'No animals allowed'. You cannot travel with this dog on board. I'm sorry," says 45-year-old Brisbane resident David Wadge.
He's talking about the moment that staff from budget airline Scoot refused to let him and another wheelchair user, Dr Merima Isakovic, 58, board flight TZ005 from the Gold Coast to Singapore on Saturday morning.
Until that moment, both Wadge and Isakovic - who had never met before this incident - were looking forward to their respective holidays in Asia.
Wadge was heading to Cebu in the Philippines and Isakovic was going to an important family celebration in Singapore. Neither of them made it.
Instead, they were forced to watch from the sidelines as all the other passengers traipsed past them on to the plane.
Isakovic, a clinical psychologist, says while she managed to keep calm, it was still an ordeal: "I was witnessing not only somebody trying to humiliate me, just because I am sitting in a wheelchair and just because I can't walk. But also humiliating another person."
Although Isakovic and Wadge had both checked in early and were ready to go, they only discovered there was an issue once they were at the gate. At that point they were told by an Aerocare staff member that Scoot: "...does not accept wheelchair users unless they have a carer with them."
Both Isakovic and Wadge have been wheelchair users for more than 20 years. Like many people with disabilities, they frequently travel nationally and internationally. Neither of them requires a carer to go about their everyday lives.
Isakovic says they were essentially being punished because they don't rely on a carer: "You're independent, that's why you can't get on to the plane."
"Being capable, being part of society, being able to contribute to community, connecting, belonging. All of this beautiful sense of self is now cut into smithereens," she continues.
Due to the narrow aisles in planes, most aeroplanes have so-called "aisle chairs" that allow wheelchair users to transfer safely into their seat.
However, Isakovic and Wadge were reportedly told: "It is Scoot's policy not to have aisle chairs on board. We don't offer that service."
Isakovic explains the policy makes no sense because a carer can't compensate for the lack of an aisle chair.
"They [the fictional carer] couldn't lift me," she says, "It's completely irrational that a carer would provide any difference. I would laugh if it wasn't so tragic. It's absurd."
According to Merima, Scoot staff refused to address her or Wadge directly. All information regarding their inability to board the plane was relayed second-hand through airport staff.
"Scoot completely disrespected two of their passengers because we are in wheelchairs. And [they] didn't talk to us - as if we are intellectually incapable of communication or something," she says.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability with respect to goods and services. This includes airline services.
Alastair McEwin, Disability Discrimination Commissioner, says he's "very disappointed" to learn Scoot prevented wheelchair users from boarding flight TZ005 two days ago.
"This is a perfect example where we see people with disability denied the fundamental right to be treated with respect and dignity and to spend time with their family and friends," he says.
"Scoot is, under the law, required to provide access to their services," McEwin continues. "People with disability should be able to travel anywhere in the world."
McEwin says the Australian Human Rights Commission "regularly receives complaints about lack of, or denial of, physical access to aeroplanes, particularly for people who use wheelchairs. Airlines often make it very difficult for these people to travel."
In response to a detailed list of questions from news.com.au, Scoot emailed the following statement: "We apologise for the inconvenience and unhappiness caused to our two guests. As part of Scoot's commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of our guests, we have in place policies for guests who require special assistance.
"This includes guests on wheelchairs to be able to move independently or be accompanied by an able-bodied guest. Our investigations into the matter revealed that the guests were provided with incorrect advice due to an oversight on the part of our call centre," the statement reads.
(As required by Scoot's Terms of Carriage, both Isakovic and Wadge notified the airline beforehand and were assured they could fly.)
The email statement from Scoot goes on to say: "We offered to arrange for alternative flight arrangements on a Singapore Airlines flight from Brisbane to Singapore but the offer was not taken up by the guests. Thus, we have fully refunded their airfare instead. We will also be reviewing our process to avoid a recurrence of such incidents."
In her case, Isakovic says there was no point making alternative travel arrangements because by that time she had missed the family celebration in Singapore.
"They cannot repeat the family reunion and celebration," she says, adding: "I hope that Scoot will never again allow themselves to challenge the dignity of any person with a disability."
Wadge says this isn't the first time he's been refused access to an aircraft and consequently, he's "boiling on the inside" and plans to "hit these guys with every f****** thing I've got."
"I want compensation. I want a damn apology in writing and I want that damn policy changed in writing by the airline," he says.
Meanwhile, McEwin is calling on the airline industry to provide more training and resources in respect to disability awareness. Contrary to popular belief, he says such measures are relatively low cost. He points to Qantas as a leading example.
This is not the first time Scoot has hit the headlines for the poor treatment of a person with disabilities. Earlier this year the airline was forced to apologise to a passenger with cerebral palsy on the Gold Coast-Singapore route.