Flying High

South Africans are not as service conscious as other countries but, as people with disabilities, what service should we be expecting from the people who have to assist us within our daily lives? I would like to look at the point-to-point steps of air travel with regard to what service levels we should expect, and in fact demand, as our rights as human beings who would like to move through society as seamlessly as possible. The services at airports for people with disabilities have been in the media spotlight lately, and so here’s some feedback as to what happened and what we can expect for future travel. The services for assistance at airports are contracted out and at the beginning of the year the contracts of the two existing companies, CHS and Equity, expired.

Three new companies came into the mix:

  1. Swissport – which only handles SAA flights.
  2. Bid Air – which took over the old CHS contract handling BA Comair, Kulula.com.
  3. 1 Time and Mango (the domestic airlines) and Menzies – handling the foreign airlines.

Unfortunately Equity removed all of their equipment when their contract expired, and so, at present, there isn’t always the appropriate and functional equipment at all airports, countrywide. Also there have been huge staffing changes and challenges. Menzies have taken on some of the existing Equity staff, but most staff are completely new. Bid Air took over the CHS staff, but Swissport has mostly an entirely new staff, who have all been through a training and sensitisation programme. The other two contractors have only recently completed training at ORTIA only, so we are going through a transition time. This doesn’t mean that we should not expect to be treated with dignity and respect.

There are at least ten point-to-point steps that a person with a disability has to go through when taking a flight anywhere, and the process starts from your home.

  1. Transfer into the vehicle that transports you to the airport – You may be using a taxi or transfer service, or a person who is not known to you or even drive yourself there and park - this is if you are a wheelchair user
  2. Transfer out of the vehicle at the airport - The drop off bays allocated for people with disabilities are not always available. The driver should ascertain where it would suit you to be dropped off and there is very little tolerance on the time allowed to park there!
  3. Parking or Drop-off to Check in counter – Often a challenge if you are on your own with luggage.
  4. Check-in counter – These are not at present at all accessible to people who use wheelchairs therefore, if you are travelling alone, the airline staff should assist by coming through the check-in area to assist you in front of the counter.
  5. Holding area – This is usually where you wait for the contracted Assistance Staff to meet you to assist you through the security check and on to the 2nd holding area. This is a dingy and unfriendly area unless you are a fan of Donald Duck in the adjoining “unaccompanied minors” area!
  6. Security check - Your hand luggage & cell phone will have to go through the scanner, while you will be taken through an accessible gate and brought back to your luggage, where the security staff will then do a personal body pat down and check of the wheelchair. You should be taken into a screened area for this. The Assistance staff will hold your personal belongings while this is happening.
  7. Holding area behind the security check - You may be left at this point by the Assistance staff until the time of boarding. They must let you know what time they will return. You need to arrange with them should you need to use the WC facilities before boarding, so that they return in time to assist you.
  8. Loading into the Passenger Aid Unit [PAU] – You will be taken out onto the apron and loaded into the PAU, which is a vehicle with a hoist. Once inside the PAU your wheelchair must be secured into place for the journey to the aircraft. At the aircraft the entire cab of the PAU is lifted to the level of the aircraft door and a bridge is extended so that you can transfer into the plane. This is usually done at the rear door of the plane.
  9. Transfer out of your wheelchair into the slipper chair - You should be allowed to travel to the plane in your own wheelchair and only transfer into the slipper chair once you are ready to board the plane (when the PAU is level with the aircraft door). Have your boarding pass ready for the cabin staff.
  10. Transfer into your airplane seat - The Assistance staff will take you to your seat and bring your hand luggage. Make sure that you have all your pieces of hand luggage and wheelchair cushion and know where they are being stowed BEFORE the Assistance Staff leave. The cabin crew will then take over and explain the in-flight procedures. Always confirm with them that your wheelchair gets brought to the plane on arrival otherwise you may have to transfer into your own chair at the baggage carousel!

A number of these transactions will be “skin-on-skin”, which is a highly personal interaction, and therefore a level of respect for culture and gender is absolute. You have the right to expect the following from each person who you come into contact with throughout this process.

  • You should be greeted personally – “Good morning, my name is XX. I’m here to assist you.”
  • You should be asked – “How do I assist you?”
  • You should have the process forward explained - i.e. “I am now taking you through this separate gate while your personal hand luggage goes through the security check”. “Once we are on the other side – you will be taken aside for a personal body check by the security guard”
  • Many times the accessible routes are not the same as everyone else’s, and this should be explained
  • You should be shown where the nearest accessible WC facilities are when waiting at either of the holding points
  • You should be offered bottled water and a towel whilst in the PAU
  • You also have the right to refuse to be handled by anyone who shows obvious signs of illness. It is almost guaranteed that if you are assisted in a transfer by someone who has a cold, odds are that you will catch it!
  • You have the right to refuse to be lifted by a person of the opposite gender or someone who you feel is not robust enough to assist you (and I can assure you there are many; some of the PAU staff even use high heeled shoes on duty!) Most lifts have to be done by standing behind and lifting the body by placing the lifter’s arms under your arms, bringing the “Lifter’s” forearms into contact with the “Liftee’s” chest!

Obviously, making your needs known prior to your trip should make the process easier. Use a taxi or transfer company who has advertised that they cater to the needs of people with disabilities. Contact the airlines to confirm that your needs are in the system or confirm with your travel agent that they have contacted the airlines with your needs, and get written confirmation as far as possible.

Arrive with plenty time to spare, so that if you get to a point where you need to insist that your needs be met, there is time to allow the staff to make the necessary changes. There must always be give and take in order for life to work. A calm rational explanation as to why you would like something done your way usually gets results. If you are dissatisfied, please ask for the person’s name and job description so that you can forward this in a complaint. All companies need feedback – both positive and negative in order to gauge the level of service that their employees are giving. Having said all this - Are you getting the service that is your fundamental right? If not, let me know so that we can all work together to get service levels improved. Email: island.ventures@pixie.co.za

Happy Travels!

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