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Frame policies to enable dignified air travel for disabled passengers, says Supreme Court

March 12, 2019

What are the policies needed to ensure that people with disabilities are able to enjoy air travel with dignity?

A response to this important question has been sought by the Supreme Court from the central government as well as Air India within eight weeks' time.

This was during a hearing into a petition filed by Kaushik Kumar Majumdar, who has an 85% orthopaedic disability. Majumdar has alleged that in December 2017 he was refused to board an Air India flight and that he was criticised by the airline staff when he refused to remove the batteries from his wheelchair.

The court has asked the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD), Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), Ministry of Civil Aviation, Air India and all state governments and Union Territories to respond to the petition within the given time.

Majumdar has sought directions to DGCA to frame guidelines regarding sensitization and training programmes for authorities, airlines staff and airports with respect to the needs of disabled people.

So, what are the kind of policies that the community feels would enable dignified air travel? NewzHook decided to ask people across disability types and with different travel needs this million dollar question.

Community inputs

An accessible travel specialist for Enable Travels, Shama Noorani Choudhary travels for a living. "There needs to be some dignity in the way the entire scanning is done. I am not saying that as a wheelchair user, I should not be scanned, but it can be done in a nicer way using the machines you see in airports in western countries".

The other sticking point for Choudhary is the airline staff. "There needs to be proper training done of porters. I came back from Goa the other day and I nearly hurt my foot because of the way I was handled. I need three porters to carry me and this is very important".

For Mumbai-based lawyer Amar Jain, the accessibility blocks come up at the first step. "The DGCA talks about the need to make the websites and apps of all airlines accessible, but that is missing across all airlines", says Jain, who happens to be visually impaired. "None of them have addressed this". The other issue, says Jain, starts when you reach the airport.

"Take Mumbai airport. There is a long walk from the point where the cab drops you to the counter inside where you find your special assistant. You have to walk quite a distance when there should be a facility such that the assistant comes up to the cab when you get off outside the airport".

Some other helpful suggestions by Jain are to make the boarding pass sequence number and the baggage tag number digitally available to reduce dependence on assistants and avoid baggage confusion, which has happened to him on occasion.

One feedback that was unanimously offered by everyone we spoke to was on the need for greater sensitization among airlines and airport staff.

"Queues can be tough especially for children with certain disabilities like autism, says Akila Padmanabhan, parent to a child with autism and founder of Amaze Charitable Trust. "Children cannot wait for long periods of time and that can be hard".

Padmanabhan says she has had a good experience with international and local airlines when it comes to matters like seat preferences or negotiating queues. "I would request an airline staff to walk him to the security check as he has a tendency to walk away. I have always been accommodated but if there was a rule setting this down, that would be easier".

Padmanabhan suggests that the staff at various stages like security, baggage check and seating be sensitized so they are aware of the various protocols to be followed. "The staff should be there ready to support when they know a disabled person is coming. We should be able to mention this when we book our tickets, so they are ready with various protocols".

Jasmina Khanna, a Mumbai based working professional and wheelchair user, most problems that disabled passengers faced during air travel stem from lack of awareness. "Airlines usually they allow power wheelchair to be taken. In Majumdar's case it might have been lack of awareness". Khanna believes that presence of mind is critical, and that the onus also lies on people with disabilities to sensitize others. She suggests that Majumdar could have requested for the airline staff to call a technical person with better understanding of how an automatic wheelchair works, who could then have intervened with the non-technical staff.

Jain believes that many of the solutions to these problems are addressed well at the policy level. "The policy parameters are already there, but implementation is slow. For instance, most third-party aggregators like Make My Trip or Yatra do not have the facility to inform the airline in advance that a passenger needs an assistant when this is a DGCA requirement", he says.

Across India, in many major airports, facilities for passengers with disabilities is better than before. Yet, this is a process that needs to be constantly worked on to ensure that it becomes deeply entrenched.



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