Column: Travels with my wheelchair

Emma Muldoon aoutside the Albertina, Vienna
Emma Muldoon aoutside the Albertina, Vienna

Can you imagine being told by an airline that you cannot fly with them because you wear prescription glasses? That would be ridiculous, even a little hard to believe, not to mention discriminatory.

Unfortunately, that isn’t far from what I and other disabled travellers experience with certain airlines. Thankfully not for wearing glasses, but for needing to travel with our wheelchairs and mobility aids.

Just last week I read a well-publicised story about a little boy who like myself has Muscular Dystrophy, a progressive muscle-wasting condition. This little boy is only ten years old and uses a mobility scooter.

Due to the incompetence and ignorance of Jet2, their precious family holiday was ruined as soon as they arrived at the airport to return home. Despite the family following the airline’s procedures for disabled passengers as well as providing details of the mobility scooter on numerous occasions, Jet2 failed to carry out their responsibilities and take the necessary action.

The family were left feeling humiliated when they were told they could not fly home unless they were able to prove their son’s disability.

The whole experience was so traumatising that the boy was inconsolable. Telling his family that he hated his life and no longer wanted to live and be ‘different’. It is heartbreaking that someone especially a child is made to feel this way because they have a disability.

This got me thinking about my own experience where I spent four days trying to book a flight to Vienna with Jet2. Booking a flight is usually so quick and simple and done in a few clicks online. My experience was far from quick and simple. It was stressful and demoralising.

Initially, I was told my wheelchair backrest was too high to fit in the aircraft hold. Having complex seating needs, I was hesitant to remove or adjust the backrest which had been precisely set by specialists to meet my needs. Especially when similar airlines with near identical aircraft have no issue storing my wheelchair.

However, I reluctantly agreed, but in order to do so, we would have to use tools to fold down the backrest. Jet2 informed me that I would not be allowed to fly with them if we used tools, either our own or the airport staff, to disassemble the backrest. Therefore, leaving me with no reasonable alternative.

It was now the third day and countless phone calls later with the airline. I was desperately trying to come up with a solution for my backrest so we could fly. It was then that the airline informed me that the weight of my wheelchair was now an issue. Even though I provided the weight and dimensions of my wheelchair on day one.

A further 24-hour wait to find out whether my wheelchair - my legs, my lifeline, would be accepted under the Dangerous Goods Act and cleared to travel with me.

I was asked if I had a manual wheelchair I could use instead, which I didn’t. I have a powered wheelchair for many reasons including the inability to self-propel, having complex seating requirements and for maximum comfort, postural support and pain management. What gives Jet2 the right to say what wheelchair I should travel with?

It seemed as if they were deliberately trying to put barriers in my way to prevent me from flying with my powered wheelchair. If I was a manual wheelchair user then they would have accepted and cleared me to fly straightaway.

I felt disheartened that my travel plans were literally hanging in the balance at the mercy of Jet2 and their unacceptable demands. Having my wheelchair refused clearance to fly felt like a personal attack on me, but it seems I am not the only one.

Thankfully, I have not let that experience stop me from travelling and my experience with other airlines has been much more positive. I eventually made it to Vienna six months later by flying from Manchester Airport with a different airline.