The only miles Qatar Airways is awarding me are miles of anxiety. Even in this day and age where inclusion has to be the best buzz word in every board meeting and marketing campaign. On the ground, Qatar Airways treatment of people with disabilities is stepping away from being inclusive. I frequently fly on this airline but a recent incident caught my attention about the airline offboarding passengers if they ‘can’t walk’ as part of some post-pandemic safety measure. But insufficient conversation, no training, and lack of knowledge will eventually damage the efforts of millions of solo disabled travelers who have spent years learning to travel solo.
A solo wheelchair traveler who travels for public speaking engagements and documenting stories that matter. I have had sufficient experience with local and international wheelchair protocols. This includes informing the airline about the wheelchair, its specifications, the return of it during transit, and the needs of oneself during the flight. But a very interesting line of questioning happened with Qatar Airways during my Check-in that made my brow sweat. I was told there was a new policy in place (Which I have yet to find online) that says any passenger will not receive any help during the flight from the cabin crew such as help in eating, buckling their belts, or going to the bathroom, etc.
I explained I can do all of these things and for the bathroom, I might need an aisle chair. But the ground staff seemed not convinced enough and also pointed out that the fact that I am a wheelchair user, I should have a companion. I handled the situation with diplomacy while even doing some demos for them to prove that I was capable of handling myself without the need for caregiving of any sort. With a laugh I told them I have been trying to prove myself for the past 31 years. I was allowed to board that day from Sweden as Sweden follows a social model of disability and that reflected in the mindset of the ground staff that day. Unfortunately, the behavior of the airline varies from country to country leaving every wheelchair user living on the edge of their seat while traveling.
Read More: Where There is a Wheel There is a Way
Case in Place: Offboarding due to being in a wheelchair
A passenger traveling on 3rd April 2023 from Lahore, Pakistan to Munich, Germany stated;
‘They gave me an unexpected shock by telling me that there is a change in their internal policy after COVID-19. So now if you need a cabin wheelchair (inside the aircraft) you cannot travel alone anymore. Because the crew is not allowed to help you (cannot touch you at all) even if you need the slightest help!’
The passenger was a frequent flier herself and did not need any extra care on the flight apart from a cabin wheelchair if she needed to use the restroom which is a standard availability on every flight but the ground staff did not board her. She was also not given any information before reaching the airport neither did she get a full refund and was marked as a ‘No show’
Can the greatest airline in the world deny boarding just because a person is in a wheelchair, is traveling alone and is claiming responsibility for themselves? I mean if they say that they don’t need assistance and just a cabin wheelchair, will they still be denied boarding? Turns out yes!
Similar case is of Craig Nolan from Australia where he was also off boarded but this is a a case of mischaracterizing his need as he shared;
“Had they listened they would have realized I only needed help to be pushed from my chair to the toilet, which is part of their job description. I wasn’t asking for help in the plane or in the bathroom,” Nolan told The Guardian
I was convinced the airline is confusing medical needs to disabled needs. Because not every wheelchair user is sick or needs caregiving. For some it’s a lifestyle that companies can cater to like a market. In fact every airline must revise their inclusion policies because we are headed towards a great market shift where most people might either be in a wheelchair or would need independent accessibility.
According to WHO,
By 2030, 1 in 6 people in the world will be aged 60 years or over. At this time the share of the population aged 60 years and over will increase from 1 billion in 2020 to 1.4 billion. By 2050, the world’s population of people aged 60 years and older will double (2.1 billion).
Having a companion is not the solution and remains part of a charitable mindset of organizations when trying to be inclusive. We also understand that airline staff are not babysitters or caregivers and we all must have our own responsibility in place. But a cabin wheelchair is a basic provision and Independent traveling is a human right. All PWDs know themselves well enough to know when to say yes or no to assistance. There is no joke here.
Qatar Airways has also given a list of requirements passengers must be able to do themselves if they don’t have a caregiver with them such as using lavatory facilities or eating, buckling their belt, and so on. The entire list is very subjective and the airline can create some room for independent wheelchair users who are proficient solo travelers and claim their own responsibility.
Wheelchair handled like baggage
Sadly the airline’s behavior is not just limited to boarding. It is also mischaracterizing wheelchairs and other assistive devices as baggage. On one of my own transit times, I had to wait 2 hours to get my own wheelchair. But I wasn’t as brave and composed like, Jamila Main who is an actress on a wheelchair from Australia and shares,
‘For five days I was without my wheelchair. I was unable to relieve my pain by using my chair and I was preoccupied with worry. Where was my chair? Would I get it back? Would I be able to independently move around Scotland without it?’
Summary: Open letter to Qatar Airways
I am already having goosebumps reading so many messages from users who had similar experiences after I published my video on my Instagram in hopes that Qatar Airways would take notice. But I would understand it’s not easy running ‘the best airline’ and you have your burdens. Trust me, so do I. There is nothing fun about being in a wheelchair and traveling is still a world that most people like me are exploring. Your airline can only be the greatest airline if you become an ally to our efforts and for that, I would sum up some key points.
- While I appreciate your efforts to ensure the complete safety of everyone on board if a person with disability claims that they don’t need assistance. They are not joking and moreover should not be penalized for it by offboarding them.
- Your airline further treats it like a ‘no show’ where in fact it should compensate the passenger for pushing them into corners of dependency. But rather they also pay on top of that.
- Having a disability is not sickness or a disease hence does not always need medical attention. Disability is a lifestyle that many of us have mastered and we use services around the world by working with the companies and not by letting them decide what we need and don’t.
- Also, wheelchairs cannot be treated like baggage at any cost and can be delivered to the passenger upon landing. It’s only a matter of priority and I have my full faith that your leadership lacks nothing in implementing a comprehensive policy that assists people with disabilities in respect to their independence and their needs. I will wait for the day when Qatar Airlines will pave the way for being the greatest airline in the world.
The One billion