A man requiring a wheelchair claims he was booted from his Qatar Airways flight after boarding the plane and left stranded at Melbourne airport because of his disability.
The story of Craig Nolan, an Australian man with spina bifida whose plan to return to his home in Finland via Doha was disrupted, comes after the disability royal commission heard evidence in recent weeks that airlines are “dehumanising” Australians with disabilities, who they treat as an “afterthought”.
On Monday, Nolan arrived at Tullamarine airport for his flight to Doha, having already alerted the airline to his disability and the fact he would be travelling solo – something the well-travelled 43-year-old has grown used to doing.
Nolan had been in Australia for several months, having returned in September for a family funeral.
Nolan said he was made to check in his wheelchair and transferred to an aisle seat – a narrow chair that requires another person to push it that some airlines use to take passengers to their seat on a plane. This involved ground staff lifting him up over a roughly large step from the airbridge onto the plane.
However, before the flight took off, Nolan said he told one of the cabin crew he would need assistance to reach the in-cabin bathroom, because he needed someone to push his aisle chair there.
Soon after, he said another member of the cabin crew told Nolan he had to leave the flight.
Nolan was stranded at the airport, with Melbourne airport putting him up in a hotel initially.
He has since tried to apply for a refund on his flight ticket, and said Qatar Airways was going to deduct about $400 from the refund because he was listed as a “no show” in their system.
Nolan told the Guardian he believes he was removed from the flight due to a misunderstanding – that the cabin crew wrongly assumed he would need assistance throughout the flight including when in the bathroom.
“Had they listened they would have realised I only needed help to be pushed from my chair to the toilet, which is part of their job description. I wasn’t asking for help in the plane or in the bathroom,” Nolan said.
Nolan, who runs a translation company and a disability auditing company with his partner in Finland, said he had been made to fly in aisle seats numerous times when travelling by himself internationally but had never encountered a similar misunderstanding.
He said he was particularly frustrated at the thought the incident could have been avoided had Qatar Airways’ crew asked him directly.
Guardian Australia has contacted Qatar Airways, but a spokesperson did not respond by deadline.
Nolan’s experience comes after the disability royal commission heard evidence that people with disabilities are routinely subject to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation when flying domestically through Australian airports.
In workshops with more than 60 Australians with a disability held in recent weeks, the commission heard that participants frequently faced extended and unreasonable wait-times when checking into flights, denial or lack of access to necessary information and support pre-flight, and that accessible flight options were poorer in regional and remote locations.
The royal commission also heard that discrimination and poor service were more prominent amid flight cancellations – which were at record levels in the middle of the year. People with disabilities said they were seen as an “afterthought” when passengers on cancelled flights are managed.
Participants also told the royal commission that whenever issues arise when flying domestically, they frequently do not receive “timely and appropriate responses by Airlines”, with participants reporting experiences of being “silenced” and “dismissed”.
“Airlines are good at ‘dehumanising’ people with disabilities,” one participant told the royal commission workshop. “When issues are brought to them, they are easily dismissed and not taken seriously.”
Another participant, the disability advocate Zoe Simmons, said: “Our stories just get swept under the rug. We get told we are the problem. People don’t realise how widespread the problem is.”
Acceptance of assistance dogs was also raised as an issue. Participants reported it is common to be barred from travelling on flights with their assistance dogs.
The royal commission also heard that most aircraft limit the number of wheelchairs to two per flight, and that some aircraft do not allow passengers to bring their wheelchairs on board and instead require passengers to transfer into aisle chairs.
The royal commission’s insights follow the Guardian’s reporting of travellers with a disability being rejected assistance and left stranded at airports – with their complaints falling on deaf ears.
In August, Tony Jones, who relies on a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury, lodged 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 is not on airlines and airports to comply but rather on individuals to make discrimination complaints – with the AHRC the only avenue.