Tuesday, September 26

Better protection for disabled air passengers


Taking flights for wheelchair users can be a stressful affair. There are enough horror stories of disabled travellers being denied boarding, not provided with necessary assistance to disembark, or wheelchair arriving totally trashed, to send shivers up our spine each time we think of having to take a flight.

There was little we could do to seek recourse when such incidents happen. We were practically at the mercy of these airlines. Damaged wheelchairs were usually not fully compensated, or sometimes not at all. The claim processes were lengthy, time consuming and frustrating, not to mention putting us at risk of a multitude of health issues by using an ill-fitting wheelchair as a temporary measure.

The days of airlines acting with impunity are over. Among the functions of the Malaysian Aviation Commission (MAVCOM), established on 1 March 2016, is to provide a mechanism for protection of consumers. To this end, the Malaysian Aviation Consumer Protection Code 2016 (MACPC) was gazetted to ensure the rights of air passengers.

Paragraph 9 of the MACPC titled ‘Non-discrimination of persons with disability’ with 19 sub-paragraphs clearly spell out the responsibilities, not only of the airlines, but the airport as well, in providing information, assistance and facilities for disabled passengers.

Airlines cannot refuse to accept reservation or refuse to board passengers with a valid reservation based on disability except in circumstances where the requirement for safety is not met or the structure of the aircraft makes it impossible to accommodate disabled passengers.

A disabled passenger requiring assistance during flight is required to travel with a companion to provide support. Generally, cabin crew are not obligated to assist in lifting and transferring, feeding and personal care of passengers, except for passage to the lavatory and back.

I have heard heart-warming accounts of cabin crew going above and beyond their job scope to do just that. At the same time, we must also bear in mind they work on a regimented time table during flight. It is not right to impose on them when they have hundreds of other passengers to serve.

MACPC requires airlines to provide safety rules in accessible formats. To fulfil this part, Malaysia Airlines has made available Braille safety cards in English and Malay languages in all of its aircrafts. The Braille documents have the same information as the printed ones, including an embossed layout of the aircraft indicating all the emergency exits.

Disabled passengers should notify the airline regarding the need for assistance at least 48 hours before departure. The ticketing staff may ask several questions to determine the level of assistance to be provided. This will be noted in the system. It is helpful to provide information on the type of assistance or assistive device required, for example, a cabin wheelchair to board and disembark, or an on-board cabin wheelchair for passage to the lavatory.

At the same time, the airline is compelled to ensure that all its staff and those of its sub-contractors providing direct assistance to have knowledge in meeting the needs of passengers with various disabilities by giving them disability equality training and disability awareness training. This is a good move to ensure the assistance provided is of an acceptable level, safe and proper.

There is a strict regulation on lithium ion batteries for motorised wheelchair for safety reasons. As a rule of thumb, these batteries must be removed and carried on board. They are not permitted to be checked-in. Up to two batteries are allowed per person. In this instance, each battery must not exceed 160 watt-hour. For a single battery, the rating must not exceed 300 watt-hour. Batteries exceeding this rating are not allowed to be carried on board or checked-in.

Appended to the MACPC are two schedules. First Schedule deals with compensation and care for denied, delayed or cancelled flights. Interestingly, for lost or damaged mobility equipment or assistive device, the compensation shall be based on prevailing market price.

What does this mean? Will we be compensated with an amount sufficient for us to acquire a similar replacement or based on the current value of the equipment taking into account depreciation? This point requires further clarification from MAVCOM.

Second Schedule lists down all the touchpoints where airlines are required to render assistance disabled passengers. These encompass arrival at the airport, check-in, boarding and disembarking. Other than medical equipment, each disabled passenger is allowed to transport up to two pieces of mobility equipment subject to the airline being notified 48 hours in advance, free of charge.

These are some procedures we should know and steps we can take to ensure a smooth journey, minimise disruptions and avert nasty surprises. As passengers, we have rights and also responsibilities, regardless of whether we are disabled or not.

The MACPC is a breath of fresh air for all parties concerned as we know what is expected of each other. It gives direction and clarity should any dispute arise. It is good to understand the protection we have under the law before we purchase our flight ticket. A copy of the MACPC can be downloaded from the MAVCOM website at www.mavcom.my.