PETALING JAYA: An advocate for the rights of the disabled has demanded an apology from Malaysia Airlines for not accommodating his special requests and misplacing his customised wheelchair, among other things.
Writing a strongly-worded “Open letter to the CEO of Malaysia Airlines”, which was published by the Borneo Post yesterday, Peter Gabriel Tan wrote of how he was not able to board Malaysia Airlines flight MH784 on Feb 1 until all passengers had boarded as the request for an aisle chair to get into the aircraft was not heeded.
“When the travel agent booked the tickets, Malaysia Airlines was informed I am a wheelchair user and require an aisle chair to get into the aircraft.
“During the check-in at the KLIA, I again informed the counter staff of that need and told her I would check in my wheelchair at the boarding gate and want it at the arrival gate after the plane landed. The wheelchair was duly tagged,” Tan said about his flight to Bangkok last Wednesday.
Tan was leaving for Bangkok to attend the Prince Mahidol Award Conference 2017 last week, where he was invited to speak about the plight of people with vulnerabilities.
Travelling with his wife, Ng Swee Wuan, Tan related how he reiterated his special requests, including on the need for the aisle chair, to the Malaysia Airlines staff at the departure lounge and was given an assurance that every thing was taken care of.
The aisle chair is a device that has been designed to transport travellers who cannot walk to their seat on an airplane.
“My wheelchair was tagged a second time there. I was allowed to board first but there was no aisle chair. I was made to wait 15 minutes outside the aircraft while the other passengers boarded until an aisle chair was brought in.
“The arm-rest for seat 11C was faulty and couldn’t be lifted despite repeated attempts by your cabin crew. I have tetraplegia and had great difficulty transferring to the seat and vice versa when the flight landed at Bangkok.”
Tan also voiced his concern on the unpreparednes of Malaysia Airline staff in handling passengers in wheelchairs, elaborating on the dangers of carrying a passenger inside the aircraft in the absence of a proper aisle chair.
“I am sure you are aware of the dangers of carrying a passenger within the narrow confines of an aircraft. A trip or a misstep could send both the carriers and me tumbling down and cause severe injuries no matter how well-intentioned the act was,” he said.
Waiting one hour inside plane after landing
Things only got worse for Tan when the flight landed at the Suvarnabumi Airport in Bangkok.
Again the request made well in advance to the national carrier for the aisle chair to be made available after arrival was not fulfilled.
“I was made to wait for more than one hour inside the aircraft before I could disembark. An aisle chair was unavailable and my wheelchair was sent to the carousel despite it sporting two tags, indicating for it to be delivered to the aircraft.
“I use a highly customised wheelchair with a fitted cushion and wasn’t keen in using the standard airport wheelchair because the non-detachable arm-rest makes it difficult for me to transfer,” Tan explained in his letter to the airlines chief executive officer Peter Bellew, adding that using a regular wheelchair would cause postural problems and was ill-fitted for him to position his legs and feet properly.
Tan said the aisle chair eventually arrived, but the request to bring the customised wheelchair was repeatedly denied by the ground staff, despite the assurance from the cabin crew that it would be made available to him at the departure lounge .
“Your cabin crew telling me my wheelchair would be brought to the departure lounge was only to get me off the aircraft. I wonder if this is the standard practice of Malaysia Airlines when it comes to treating disabled passengers,” Tan said.
The use of the regular wheelchair from the arrival gate all the way through immigration and the baggage carousel caused him to suffer from a severe backache “because my posture was not properly supported”.
Requests not noted in flight manifest
Tan ultimately found to his horror that not a single one of the requests he made, and that should be accorded to passengers with disabilities such as his, was noted in the flight manifest.
“This was absolutely shocking when I had taken pains to inform all the staff who dealt with my needs during the entire chain of booking and checking-in.
“Furthermore, leaving me stranded for one hour inside the aircraft after it had landed is totally unacceptable for whatever reason.
“I had timed my arrival and journey to the venue to enable me to attend a particular session at the conference. Unfortunately, I had to miss the entire session due to this delay,” he said.
He related how a similar incident had occurred during a flight from KLIA to Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta on Dec 8, 2016.
“I was on flight MH721 when no aisle chair was available to facilitate my disembarkation. I had to be carried out by two of your ground staff. I hadn’t complained then as I thought it would be a one-off incident.
“However, this has proven not to be so. Tell me whether this is tolerable by your standards or not,” Tan asked of Bellew in the letter.
He followed up his letter with a tweet to Bellew as follows: “@peterbellew Stranding your mobility impaired passenger for 1 hour after the plane has landed is totally unacceptable Re: MH784 1Feb2017”.
According to Tan, there has still been no response from the Malaysia Airlines CEO nor from the communications department at the airline.
Tan said the organiser of the Bangkok conference had asked him for his airline preference and he duly answered Malaysia Airlines despite the Jakarta experience.
“I would love to continue supporting Malaysia Airlines but the incident at KLIA and again at Suvarnabhumi Airport has made me think twice about flying with Malaysia Airlines again.
“In comparison, I have flown Japan Airlines four times and the service was always seamless and impeccable without the need for repeated requests. Therefore, I am aghast that Malaysia’s flag carrier, once the pride of the nation, could dish out such poor service,” he said.
Aside from demanding an apology from the airlines, for the “mental distress and physical suffering… backache and muscle ache (resulting) from the incident,” Tan said Malaysia Airlines should also reprimand and take action against all the staff involved for the lapse in service.
Calling for the national carrier to review and improve its booking process and support requests for disabled passengers, Tan said: “All staff dealing with passengers must be professionally educated on disability equality and impressed to have true empathy for all passengers.”
“Finally, I would like to point out that Malaysia has the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 in force and has ratified the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2010 both of which call for the protection of the dignity and rights of disabled persons.
“Therefore, there is neither reason nor excuse for the national carrier to provide such poor service like the one I experienced.”
Tan sustained a spinal cord injury at the age of 18 when he dived into a swimming pool in 1984. He has been using a wheelchair since. Faced with physical and attitudinal barriers wherever he went, he became an advocate for an accessible and inclusive Malaysia. -FMT