We should all be able to fly, by Heike Fabig

Travel opens the door to endless opportunities for connection, adventure, and fun. It’s something most of us take for granted.

Air travel isn’t just about the destination either. I enjoy the airport experience: getting a coffee, browsing the shops, and buying a book for the plane.

But there are over 1.2 million Australians with a disability who can’t use or have difficulties using public transport. My child, Bodhi, is one of them.

Bodhi and I have been working with PIAC to raise awareness of the challenges faced by people who use electric wheelchairs to travel by plane. I’m writing to let you know about Bodhi’s experience and what we think needs to happen next.

In 2019, Bodhi was 12 years old and preparing to fly from Sydney to Launceston to compete at a Boccia competition. Boccia is a unique paralympic ball sport specifically developed for people with significant physical disabilities that Bodhi loves and has played competitively for years.

Bodhi relies on his customised electric wheelchair to get around. It has been specially designed to enable him to move independently, safely, and comfortably.  Not having it is distressing.

When flying with Jetstar in 2019, we told the airline Bodhi needed to remain in his customised wheelchair up until the departure gate and receive his wheelchair at the arrival gate. Instead, Bodhi was required to transfer to a Jetstar wheelchair at the check-in area.

Jetstar’s practice at Sydney Airport Terminal 2 is that customers transfer out of their electric wheelchairs at the check-in area and are then assisted in a Jetstar wheelchair to their aircraft seat. The electric wheelchair is then returned to the customer near the baggage carousel on arrival.

This means customers must be pushed in the Jetstar wheelchair by someone else from the check-in area to the gate and to access the food court and shops.

Since this experience, we have been advocating for customers who use electric wheelchairs to be able to remain in their own wheelchairs up until the departure gate and to receive their wheelchairs at the arrival gate.  

I am very grateful to PIAC who assisted Bodhi and I to make a claim of unlawful discrimination under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth). Jetstar denied that it engaged in unlawful disability discrimination and the matter has now resolved. A public statement has been agreed between the parties.

We know though that since 2016, the Australian Human Rights Commission has received approximately 118 disability discrimination complaints against airlines.

Air travel should be accessible to all. As well as the pleasures of travel, it allows us to develop and maintain friendships and family connections, employment, education, sport and feel fully included in society.

But for wheelchair users, there are limited options as not all airlines and aircraft can take heavier electric wheelchairs into their cargo holds.

In Australia and overseas there have been growing calls for passengers to be able to remain in their own wheelchairs onboard flights as they are able to do on other modes of public transport. Recent innovative technologies present potential design solutions that could make airline travel safer for us, and check in faster and safer for airlines.

Bodhi and I would like to see these sorts of solutions trialled by Australian airlines.

We think it would make a big difference to the 185,100 people in Australia who use either a manual or electric wheelchair, providing them with the freedom to travel independently which we should all be able to enjoy.

I cannot thank PIAC’s solicitors and Litigation Lending enough for backing this case and helping us to highlight this issue.

Kind regards,

Heike Fabig

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