Ms. Priyanka De, an assistant professor who teaches philosophy at Presidency University and who also happens to be a wheelchair user due to cerebral palsy, has alleged harassment before and during travel on the national carrier 'Air India' recently.
Air India, while regretting the inconvenience she had faced, refused to alter its position on the issues. Ms. De, flew from Kolkata to Delhi by Air India on February 17 and returned by the same airline on February 25. Prior to travel, she had a trying time availing of a concession that the airline offers to persons with locomotor disability. Discounts under various categories, including students and the ones in Armed services, can be availed while purchasing tickets online. But Ms. De, who is a wheelchair user and a person with benchmark disability was unable to avail of the discount online. It was only when she escalated the issue with the Prime Minister’s Office that the airline reached out to her and took the necessary documents over mail to approve the 50% discount on basic fare.
The issue underlines the ordeal faced by passengers with disabilities when they are forced to personally visit the airlines office to book a concessional ticket while other categories of passengers to whom concessional tickets are allowed, can do so online. This is a systemic issue and even Indian Railways practiced this until the High Court of Delhi came out heavily on them to allow seamless system to avail online concessional ticket booking as available to other concessional categories.
She narrated, “On my return, I wrote to the airline, asking it to ensure that others with similar disability get the discount while purchasing tickets online at a time when Covid is on the rise. But in its reply, the airline has expressed its inability to do so without physically verifying the extent of disability at the airline’s city or airport counter. Why can’t a passenger upload the disability certificate at the time of purchasing the ticket and show it at the time of travel.”
Airline has no reason to ask flyers with disabilities to physically verify the extent of disability at their counter - in the city or at the airport. This is a salt on the wound and an outright discrimination on the grounds of disability as prohibited by section 3 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016. There is no written word in the law or in DGCA CAR or any other advisory to support this discriminatory practice.
Ms. Priyanka De also faced another challenge during the return journey. She was not allowed to carry her foldable wheelchair in the cabin, despite the airline website clearly stating that collapsible wheelchair and pair of crutches or braces for passenger use, if dependent on these, are allowed in the cabin.
“I have a narrow wheelchair that is collapsible to enable movement in flight and other confined spaces. It is helpful for use in the washroom. But on the afternoon of February 25, the flight crew refused to allow the wheelchair and wanted to stow it away in the belly cargo hold. When I pointed out that I could not use the washroom without it, the crew asked me to go to the toilet after the flight landed. It was inhuman,” she expressed in a Times of India article.
The airline pointed out that the space constraint in the narrow body aircraft had prompted the crew to stow it in the cabin bulk head after taking permission from the flight commander. “Efforts were made to put the chair in the overhead cabin but since it could not fit there, it was shifted to the alternative storage space,” said an airline official.
It is pertinent to mention that the DGCA's Civil Aviation Requirement on Carriage by Air of Persons with Disabilities provides as below :-
"4.1.1 No airline shall refuse to carry persons with disability or reduced mobility and their assistive aids/devices, escorts and guide dogs including their presence in the cabin, provided such persons or their representatives, at the time of booking, inform the airline of their requirement(s). The airlines shall incorporate appropriate provisions on their website within three months from the date of issue of this CAR, so that while making bookings, passengers with disability have the option to select the required facilities, which he/she will require during the journey."
Limitations of the aircraft, if any should be informed to the passengers so that they can make an informed choice. The National carrier is expected to be a role model, however, it seems there is lack of awareness and sensitisation among the staff on the subject. The DGCA CAR also provides for training of the staff in section 4.3. Specific sections are as below:
"4.3.3 The operators shall ensure that all its employees are imparted disability-related basic training and refresher training at appropriate interval.
Note: Disability related training provides practical overview and is relevant in particular to those providing assistance to persons with disability or reduced mobility. It increases understanding of the whole range of impairments so that personnel are aware of how to interact with persons with disability or reduced mobility and to tackle negative perceptions and attitudes towards such passengers.
4.3.4 In addition to basic training, operators should provide specific training for personnel who may be required to provide direct assistance to persons with disability and/or persons with reduced mobility
4.3.5 Operators shall ensure that adequate training is provided to all its service providers, ground handling agencies and sub-contractors responsible for providing assistance services
4.3.6 It shall be the responsibility of airport operator to ensure that security staff positioned at airport undergoes disability-related training
4.3.7 Airlines shall ensure that cabin crew safety and emergency procedures training is combined with disability awareness training for assisting persons with disability or reduced mobility in the cabin environment."
The airline needs to reinforce training and sensitisation of its officials on a regular basis in compliance of DGCA CAR referred above so that such issues do not crop up. Airline should also provide advance information to customers about the size and limitation of the aircraft especially in cases of narrow body aircraft being deployed on domestic sectors to allow the users to take an informed decision about their travel. The airline should immediately stop the practice of insisting physical verification of disability for booking concessional tickets. Persons with disabilities are to be provided same online facility of booking of tickets as available to other categories of travellers. For this purpose, airline could insist on adding the reference number of the identification document. In this era of technological advancement, it is easier to cross link identity documents so that the users are not harassed or discriminated on the basis of disability. Govt. of India has undertaken numerous efforts to ease the life of persons with disabilities and promote their inclusion in all walks of lives, let these incidents not mar the spirit of sabka saath, sabka vikas and sabka vishwas!