‘I got in my car and cried’: Flyer’s Qantas ordeal
AN AUSSIE traveller says his Bali holiday plans were ruined when he was prevented from boarding a Qantas flight and had the police called on him, all because of his wheelchair.
Shane Hryhorec told news.com.au when he checked in for his flight from Melbourne to Bali yesterday, he was told he would be able to take his foldable wheelchair into the cabin with him.
He intended to store it in the overhead compartment, which is what it was designed for.
But when he got through the gate and made his way onto the Bali-bound Boeing 737, the Melbourne man was told he had to put his wheelchair in the aircraft hold - which is where the humiliating experience began.
Qantas policy allows collapsed wheelchairs inside the cabin of only large Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 aircraft, and they are kept in the hold on other, smaller aircraft like 737s.
But Mr Hryhorec, who owns disability equipment company Push Mobility, said he hadn't had an issue bringing his wheelchair into the cabin before.
And after he challenged the conflicting advice from Qantas staff, Mr Hryhorec and his companion were removed from the plane and taken to the terminal, where Australian Federal Police were waiting for them.
He said the officers quickly determined it wouldn't be a police matter but the incident left the frequent flyer feeling distressed.
"I got in the car and cried. I was so upset. Sadly, this is not uncommon for people with disabilities," Mr Hryhorec said.
"I just really wonder when things like this will stop happening to us."
Mr Hryhorec said he wasn't happy with the idea of his wheelchair in the hold.
"When you get to Bali you have no idea what chair they're going to give you. My wheelchair is designed to fit in the overhead and that's why I take it travelling," he said.
"I can't afford having my chair to be damaged. I run a company that replaces wheelchairs that have been damaged in flights. I understand what happens when people fly with their chair in the hold.
"I was going from Bali to Europe for work and if something happened to my chair, that would affect my travel for work."
In a statement to news.com.au, Qantas said there had been a miscommunication.
"Our crew are trained to ensure customers who require specific assistance travel comfortably, while maintaining the safety of other passengers and crew," the airline said.
"We apologise that due to a miscommunication, one of our customers boarded our Boeing 737 aircraft intending to store their wheelchair in the overhead compartment when they are not able to be stored in the cabin.
"On smaller aircraft, wheelchairs are carried in the hold and returned back to their owner on arrival. It is never our intention to inconvenience our customers but safety for all customers is our number one priority."
Qantas allows wheelchairs to be taken on-board large Airbus A380s and Boeing 787 aircraft that both have a dedicated stowage section.
On all other Qantas aircraft types, chairs and mobility aids are stored in the cargo hold.
Some other major airlines similarly allow room for one wheelchair in the cabin of large aircraft, usually on a first-come, first-serve basis. Many carriers store wheelchairs and other mobility aids in the hold.
Mr Hryhorec said he found other airlines more accommodating than Qantas was.
"I'm happy to check in my carry-on luggage so it means my wheelchair is the only thing I'm putting in the overhead," he said.
"And it doesn't take up any more room than the luggage of any other paying customer. Usually I'm told, don't worry, you can take your carry-on with you as well.
"It's just the luck of the person you get. It's like flipping the coin in terms of what my travel experience will be like, based on how compassionate the staff will be.
"The whole system is relying on how sympathetic the staff are."
In August, Australian wheelchair tennis champion Dylan Alcott tweeted that he was stuck on an empty plane after the airline lost his wheelchair.
"Australian airlines need to sort their sh*t out. It is inhumane and unfair taking people's independence away and not caring about it," he wrote.
A social media post about Mr Hryhorec's experience this morning attracted stories from people with their own difficult experiences with various airlines while travelling with wheelchairs.
"On a flight from Gold Coast to Melbourne, we watched my partner's powered wheelchair get pushed on its side and jammed into the luggage department under the plane," one woman wrote.
"When we received it on the other end the hand control was broken and it took well over half an hour before they found the batteries for it! My partner was stuck in a silly little air plane wheelchair for roughly an hour while I attempted to fix things as the airline left me with all the broken pieces and batteries.
"People/luggage handlers do not understand the caution we take everyday with ensuring these chairs are well looked after and working efficiently."
"Sydney to Hamilton Island," another woman wrote. "My daughter's electric chair, they pulled cords out of the remote. No reason. Luckily no damage otherwise would have been a nightmare."
Others had similar stories of damage to their chairs or the chairs going missing and not being reunited with their owner for hours, days, or in one instance, a full week.
"People are saying they don't fly anymore, they just do road trips everywhere because it's too difficult," Mr Hryhorec said. "That's the reality for people with disabilities."
Mr Hryhorec said he had managed to book another flight to Bali, leaving today, but this morning Qantas confirmed his wheelchair would be put in the hold for the flight.
He said the ordeal so far left him unsure about whether to go ahead with the prepaid holiday.
"I felt ashamed and embarrassed and I don't really want to see them at the airport, the same people who treated me like crap the day before," he said.
"I'm at a point where I could even cancel the holiday. I honestly don't even want to go now.
"Things need to change because people with disabilities have been putting up with this for far, far too long."