The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) has taken Qantas to the Federal Court on behalf of their client Rachael Fullerton, for not allowing Rachael’s assistance dog Strike to travel with her on Qantas fights.
Rachael has a disability and Strike has been trained to provide Rachael with psychological and physical support. The National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) recognises Strike as an assistance animal and Rachael receives NDIS funding for his training and maintenance.
Strike, a border collie, has passed a required Public Access Test for assistance dogs and is registered as an assistance animal. He is authorised to accompany Rachael in public places, including on public transport, and both Virgin Australia and Rex airlines recognise Strike as an assistance animal able to travel on their flights.
‘Strike plays a massive role in my life. He gives me the independence most people take for granted and my world has expanded significantly because of his support,’ explains Rachael.
‘Strike is trained to do tasks that keep me safe, particularly when I’m away from home. He alerts me to impending medical issues, well before even I can detect them, and he seeks help when I need it. Without Strike, I would need another person to accompany me everywhere.’
‘I wouldn’t be able to travel without Strike. He’s been on several flights with me in the past year and his training and behaviour have been repeatedly praised by flight crews and other passengers. It’s extremely frustrating that Qantas is the only organisation refusing to acknowledge Strike as an assistance animal.’
‘To be refused service by an iconic Australian business in 2023 because of my assistance animal is inconceivable,’ said Rachael.
Since Rachael first made a request in late 2022, Qantas has not recognised Strike as an assistance animal, which bars him from travelling on Qantas flights with Rachael.
‘The whole experience of dealing with Qantas has been stressful and traumatic. I’ve spent hours upon hours, over many months, submitting evidence to try to meet Qantas’ absurd requirements and following up when my evidence was ignored,’ says Rachael.
‘I’ve missed important meetings as a result of Qantas’ not allowing Strike to travel with me, as it was the only airline regularly flying to the place I needed to go. Recently, when a return flight with another airline was unexpectedly cancelled, I was left stranded in another state. I knew I couldn’t book a flight home with Qantas like other people did.’
‘It’s incredibly disheartening that consumer choice is taken away from me and others with fully trained assistance dogs. But Qantas doesn’t seem to care.’
PIAC will argue that Qantas’s conduct amounts to disability discrimination. Rachael’s lawyer, Senior Solicitor Sheetal Balakrishnan says:
‘Australian disability laws are clear: assistance animals have the right to access public spaces and a business cannot refuse service to a person with disability because they are accompanied by an authorised assistance animal.’
‘Qantas can’t make its own rules. If Strike is an assistance animal under the federal Disability Discrimination Act, refusing to let him fly discriminates against Rachael.’
‘Qantas’s approach seems arbitrary and unfair. Strike has formal training and is recognised as an assistance animal by government agencies and other businesses. Rachael just wants to be able to fly with Qantas in the same way she flies with other airlines – and have the same options to travel as the rest of the community.’
‘Rachael is asking the Court to make a formal finding that Qantas has discriminated against her and an order that Qantas change its policy, so this discrimination doesn’t happen again – to Rachael or to others in the same position.’
The case also points to the need for clear national standards.
‘People with disability shouldn’t have to keep fighting airlines in cases like this to get fair treatment. Rachael has battled Qantas for over a year and is now going through a stressful and time-consuming Federal Court case, just so she can travel free from discrimination. That could have been avoided if we had clear and consistent national standards to set out the rights of people with disability when flying, to ensure organisations like Qantas do the right thing,’ says Sheetal.
PIAC Media and Communications Manager, Danielle Buhagiar: 0478 739 280.