Saturday, 22 June 2013

Some Passengers are Less Equal than Others

(While I normally blog from the perspective of a disabled person, I’m writing this piece in my alternate persona as an aerospace professional)

There’s a sad contrast between two aviation stories this week. On the one hand we have the Paris Air Show, with the industry slapping itself on the back as the week closes with somewhere north of $165Bn of orders (yes, that figure is billions) for over 1000 airliners, 1500 when options are included, on the other we have this story from the Daily Telegraph, with Thai Airways invoking the Montreal Convention to get out of paying the full £3600 cost of replacing a disabled passenger’s wheelchair damaged during a flight. 

A national carrier trashes a disabled passenger’s wheelchair through negligence, then weasels out of paying for it? What kind of impression of the industry do we want people to take away with them? In some ways this isn’t surprising, the EU estimates that there are between 600 and 1100 incidents of mobility equipment being damaged in transit on airlines or within airports every year, just within the EU, and that disabled people travel at a significantly lower rate than non-disabled people as a result. Yet the cost of full replacements in those incidents is likely to be significantly under £5m, a piddling sum in comparison to the $165Bn worth of business done this week at Paris, or the value of all passenger flights within the EU over the course of a year.

The Montreal Convention limits enforceable compensation of baggage damaged in transit aboard an aircraft to 1131 SDRs (Special Drawing Rights, about £1100), but even a basic individually-fitted, manually-propelled wheelchair is likely to cost more than that, and if the user’s disability requires additional customisation or a powerchair, then the likely cost of replacement will exceed the Montreal Convention compensation several times over. The EU in a report on the liability of air carriers in these cases and the supporting survey notes that disabled passengers face far greater disadvantage as the result of damaged baggage than do other passengers, with the loss of mobility equipment potentially bringing their life to a screeching halt for weeks or even months. The EU further notes that the US and Canada have worked around the Montreal Convention by making full compensation for disabled passengers a pre-condition for the right to fly in their airspace, and notes that it may have to do the same unless the situation resolves itself as a result of the EC 1107/2006 rights of Passengers with Reduced Mobility when travelling by air. However the EU survey revealed extraordinary complacency among the airlines, and to a lesser extent airports, who felt that all needs of passengers with reduced mobility in the event of damaged mobility equipment were being fully met. There doesn’t seem to be any real sign of change resulting from EC 1107/2006, with stories of passengers refused boarding, outright abused by cabin crew, or having their wheelchairs or other mobility equipment trashed in transit still crossing my twitter feed on a depressingly regular basis.

As an industry, does aviation want to be seen as a force for passenger equality, or a reactionary force that has to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the 19th Century? The Thai Airlines story suggests that latter, while Paris suggests the industry is awash with money to the point it could solve all the issues of disabled passenger rights and lose the costs in the rounding errors. The choice is ours.