Australia’s airlines and airports urged to improve treatment of travelers with disabilities

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The chairman of the royal commission on disability has written to Australian airline and airport chiefs about how to improve their treatment of travelers with disabilities, after the inquiry heard stories of people being thrown to the ground and discrimination against assistance dogs.

So far, the royal commission has heard that people with disabilities are routinely subjected to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation when flying within the country, with participants saying in the inquiry that they felt airlines were “dehumanizing” them and that complaints were rarely followed up. Advocates have told Guardian Australia that complaining through the Australian Human Rights Commission is often the only way to seek recourse.

In a letter sent to several chief executives this week, Ronald Sackville KC outlined concerns people with disabilities have reported to the royal commission, with travelers frequently facing “inaccessible facilities and services” and “useless practices and systems adopted by airlines”.

Related: Australian man says he was kicked off Qatar Airways flight because of his disability

Sackville listed gaps raised by people with disabilities that airlines and airports could address to make flying “a more inclusive experience.”

“People with disabilities often experience avoidable challenges when traveling by air,” Sackville wrote. “Domestic airlines and airports can do more to address those challenges.”

Sackville wrote about how people with disabilities had told the commission that their wheelchairs had been damaged during travel and that the airlines had not taken responsibility for correcting the problem.

He also described stories of disabled travelers who fell to the ground because airline staff were not using the wheelchair lift correctly.

The commissioner also pointed to limited access to safe ramps and discrimination against people who rely on assistance dogs.

Sackville’s letter follows workshops with 60 Australians with disabilities last year about their experiences, which also found discrimination and poor service to be more prominent amid flight cancellations, which reached record levels in the middle of last year.

People with disabilities said they were seen as an “afterthought” when managing passengers on canceled flights.

“When problems come their way, they dismiss it easily and don’t take it seriously,” said one participant.

The royal commission’s ideas follow Guardian reports of disabled travelers being refused assistance and stranded at airports, their complaints falling on deaf ears.

In August, Tony Jones, who is wheelchair dependent due to a spinal cord injury, filed a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission after he was turned away at the gate when trying to board a Jetstar flight in sydney.

Lawyers representing Jones have said there are low levels of industry compliance with disability standards, and that the onus falls not on airlines and airports to comply, but on individuals to file discrimination complaints, the AHRC the only way.

In June, a French national with severe spinal cord damage after being shot during a terror attack in Paris said he was left on an airlift at Sydney airport with his young family for more than an hour. In December, a man who required a wheelchair said he was removed from his Qatar Airways flight after boarding the plane and stranded at Melbourne airport due to his disability.

A statement on behalf of Qantas and Jetstar said the airline group was “considering the matters raised”. “Qantas and Jetstar are working hard to improve the experience for customers with accessibility needs.”

A Virgin Australia spokesman said it would give the royal commission’s letter “very close consideration”. “We know how important it is to make sure air travel is inclusive and accessible for all of our guests.”

Guardian Australia has also contacted Rex for comment.

Speaking generally about the issues faced by air travelers with disabilities, James Goodwin, chief executive of the Australian Airports Association, said the industry had launched initiatives with members on hidden disabilities.

Goodwin also said the problems had been more pronounced in the past year due to the pandemic exodus of aviation personnel and a largely new and less experienced workforce filling its shoes.

“Airports continue to work with other parts of the industry, including government agencies that operate airports, and stakeholders to share information so that we can continue to promote inclusive and consistent practices,” Goodwin said.

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