‘Second-class citizen’: man lifted on to plane as Darwin airport had no ramp for wheelchair users

<span>Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

An Australian man has said he was made to feel like a “second-class citizen” by being lifted on to a Jetstar flight in Darwin, as disability advocates call for a complete overhaul of the way airlines treat passengers.

Brad Wszola, 50, suffered a spinal cord injury in 2016. He uses a wheelchair, but was not able to navigate the gap between the air bridge and the plane when boarding a Jetstar flight from Darwin to Cairns on 12 August.

Related: Passenger kept from boarding after Jetstar’s refusal to assist with wheelchair makes discrimination complaint

When his wife, Jenny, asked airline staff for a ramp to bridge the gap, she was told Darwin airport did not provide any.

His wife and a staff member had to lift him over the gap to transfer to the aisle wheelchair provided inside the plane.

“Watching these people having to lift me, to bend down, Jen had to bend down below the level of the floor of the plane, bend over and grab the bottom of the aisle chair to lift me … That put myself at risk, also the staff at risk and Jenny at risk,” Wszola said. “She was the one helping lift me into the plane.”

He said having a ramp available at every airport around the country was an “inexpensive no-brainer” that would allow everyone to travel.

It wasn’t the only time they felt mistreated on the trip – on arrival in Darwin, Wszola said, the airline did not bring his chair to the air bridge, instead sending it to the baggage carousel with the other passengers’ luggage.

“When we got down to the carousel there was no wheelchair, my wheelchair came out last,” he said. “So I’m stuck in this chair that I can’t get around in.”

Jenny Wszola said she sent 12 emails to Jetstar and 17 to Darwin airport after the incident, requesting that they provide ramps. After referring her to different departments, Jetstar told her there was no ramp because it was a low-cost airline.

“Jetstar’s operational requirements as a low fares airline, together with our safety and other obligations as an airline, mean that Jetstar is only able to provide limited specific assistance to passengers, including to passengers requiring wheelchair assistance,” the airline wrote in an email.

Jenny said the response from the airline left her furious, especially as there has always been a ramp when they have visited Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane.

“Inclusion doesn’t have to be hard, it just needs to be there. It’s madness,” she said.

When Guardian Australia contacted the airline, it said a ramp would be delivered to Darwin airport the same afternoon.

“We regularly review the support provided to customers requiring specific assistance, including those who use wheelchairs,” the airline said in a statement. “As part of this, we’ve reached out to Mr and Mrs Wszola to better understand their recent experience.

“Jetstar has also arranged for a ramp to be delivered to Darwin Airport for use by ground handlers to provide a better boarding experience.”

Wheelchair users have raised repeated concerns about their treatment while flying.

In July, Guardian Australia reported on the case of a man left stranded in an air bridge at Sydney airport for more than an hour without a wheelchair after arriving on an international flight.

Tony Jones, a policy and advocacy manager at Spinal Cord Injuries Australia, has lodged a discrimination complaint with the Human Rights Commission after he was turned away at the gate when trying to board a Jetstar flight in Sydney, in May last year.

Last month, Shane Hryhorec, a disability advocate and entrepreneur called for more protections for travellers after he was patted down and had his passport taken from him and his chair confiscated in Abu Dhabi.

Hryhorec said the airline industry needed an accessibility overhaul, after enduring “the worst flight experience” of his life in September.

One of his $800 wheelchair batteries was confiscated by Etihad Airways before he boarded his flight home from Munich, Germany.

“I had to go through a security checkpoint [in Abu Dhabi], the X-ray machine, they forcibly patted me down, they were quite physical and heavy-handed,” Hryhorec told the ABC.

He said he was then taken to a private room where his passport was confiscated and he was moved into a stationary chair while they took away his wheelchair.

“This entire ordeal took 45 minutes and left me feeling violated, upset, angry and feeling more disabled than I ever felt before in my life,” he said.

Hryhorec flies regularly for work and says airlines have not improved in the last 15 years.

“There’s no profit in a person with a disability, so without profit, there is little incentive to make a change.”

Five years ago, member of the Disability Leadership Institute, Gary Allen, had to be lifted on to an Emirates flight by his wife, teenage son and flight attendants. He has not flown since.

“To be honest part of the reason is because of that experience, and not being up for it again,” he says.

“It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but it wasn’t great for my dignity. I was travelling to speak at a symposium. So what it should have been a satisfying trip, was ruined a bit by that experience.”

The Australian government is currently conducting a review of disability standards for accessing public transport.

The federal transport minister, Catherine King, said: “This simply isn’t good enough. Every person boarding a plane should be treated with dignity and respect, and have access to the services and supports they need.”

In a statement, Darwin Airport said they were disappointed to hear about Wszola’s experience.

“We will continue to work closely with our airline partners to ensure the experience of all passengers travelling through our airport is a positive one,” the statement said.

Guardian Australia put questions to Ethiad Airways and Emirates, but did not receive a response.