Open letter to Qantas

 

Michael Herold
Hans-Böhm-Str. 9
97264 Helmstadt
Germany
michael@michaelherold.de

Qantas Airways Limited
10 Bourke Road
Mascot NSW 2020
Australia

March 19, 2014

 

Open letter to Qantas regarding their handling of a disabled passenger

 

Dear Qantas Team,

last month I had the worst travel experience in my life, flying with Qantas.

Despite letting Qantas know ahead of time of the specifics of my mobility aid and getting their Okay and letter of approval, I was then turned away at the check-in counter by their partner airline and told my wheelchair could not be transported. After much hassle I was able to change my flight to one that was actually able to load my wheelchair. This resulted in horrible flight and stop over times. At one point I was left sitting on a bench at the airport in Bangkok for 7h without any help, food or drink.

I am a public speaker helping people overcome their limitations, and an author writing for travel magazines and various organisations concerned with people with disabilities.

Because of my profession, I travel a lot. Because of my disability, I use an electric wheelchair. These two facts mean that I am well accustomed to the increased organisational overhead that comes with traveling (and flying in particular). I am also used to the discomfort and hardships that come with long distance flights and which are – I think it is save to assume – quite a lot higher for people with a disability.

However, I have learnt that both issues are a lot easier to deal with if I work hand in hand with the airline’s customer service team, and if I put forethought into the specifics of my flights before I book them. I find that this makes it easier both for me and for the airline as well.

And then I booked a flight with Qantas.

Part 1: Prelude

After a two month stay in Thailand I wanted to fly from Bangkok to Auckland, planning to stay a month and then fly to Frankfurt. And I decided to book my flight with Qantas. I decided to fly with Qantas because I liked the reputation the airline has and wanted to avoid low fare airlines for my own comfort. But more importantly the arrival, departure and stop over times of the flights where very comfortable for my physical condition.

Because of my disability, I can not walk for more than a few steps. This is why I request assistance (SSR-Code WCHS) when booking any flight. I check-in my electric wheelchair together with my bags. This allows me to supervise the disassembly of the electric wheelchair and disconnect of the batteries, without having to leave this to the ground crew alone. I then sit in a manual wheelchair supplied by the airline, and the assistance staff brings me to the door of the aircraft. I can walk enough to make it from the door to the seat on my own by using a crutch. In case of stop overs, I receive my electric wheelchair only at the final destination.

The flight itself is when it becomes uncomfortable for me. During the flight it is very difficult for me to get up from my seat. In longer flights this leads to back pain and thirst – since I can not get up a visit to the toilet is out of question. Therefore I have learnt to appreciate flights no longer than 7h. Having stop overs during longer journeys allows me to get up, visit the toilet, stretch and relieve my back. Longer trips are always planned around this premise. Stop overs of 3h are just about perfect for that. Because of the wheelchair assistance, I am the last one to leave the airplane. At the same time, I am also the first one to board the next flight during pre-boarding. A 3h stop over therefore gives me about an hour worth of time to take care of my health and comfort.

The flight I booked with Qantas had exactly that – three flights, with the longest flight 7.5h, and two stop overs of roughly 3h each. That meant that in theory, I had paid for a journey that would be as comfortable as they can get in my situation.

After the booking I contacted Qantas customer support, letting them know of the mobility equipment I am bringing. I supplied them with the size and weight of the wheelchair and an IATA safety certificate for the batteries. Twelve(!) e-mails later I received a letter of approval for my mobility aid from the dangerous goods department of Qantas and the Okay to bring it with me. All set and ready to go.

Part 2: Drama

I arrived at the check-in counter 3h prior to departure to have ample time for all that needs to be arranged. The first flight of the journey, QF 4215, was operated by Jetstar Asia. Immediately after checking my ticket, the lady behind the counter told me that they will not be able to transport my wheelchair. Waving the letter of approval and the Okay mail from Qantas Dangerous Goods did not help. The problem, she explained, was that the small aircraft going from Bangkok to Singapur did not have a cargo space that would allow for the wheelchair to be stored properly, and that’s that. They would not transport my wheelchair.The lady then told me she could try and put me on a direct flight from Bangkok to Sydney, explaining that such an airplane will be big enough to transport a 100kg electric wheelchair. I was invited to stay within sight while she tried to reach the Qantas office in Bangkok. One and a half hours later, I was still sitting and waiting. The lady checked back with me every half hour or so, telling me that she’s not able to reach anyone at the Qantas Bangkok office and there’s nothing else she could do.

A voided ticket in sight and feeling quite worried, I had to to take things into my own hands. Otherwise the aircraft I had paid for would just leave without me and I would be stuck in Bangkok. I called the Qantas Dangerous Goods department in Australia, reasoning that since they gave me the Okay to fly in the first place, they ought to be the ones who can solve my current dilemma. I spend about half an hour talking to various people there, and making a mobile call from Thailand to Australia is far from cheap.

Luckily, they did indeed manage to put me on a different flight later that day. They also changed my return flight from Auckland to Bangkok, foreseeing that I would run into exactly the same problem there (tiny aircraft). By the way, I hugely appreciate the effort and patience of the DG team on that day. I am not sure if it was their job and/or responsibility to help me, but they saw my dilemma and they solved it as good as they could.

However, this meant that I had to wait another 4h for my new flight to depart. That gave me 7h of waiting at the airport before the journey even started. I would then fly directly to Sydney without a stop over. Instead of a 7.5h flight as the toughest part of my journey, I now had a 9.5h flight ahead of me. Anyone arguing that there’s not much of a difference between 7.5h flight time and 9.5h, I hereby invite to try this: do not go to the bathroom for 7.5h. Then, once that time is passed, wait another two hours.

Part 3: More Drama

This was not the end of it. My return flight was much worse.

In my original itinerary, Qantas would bring me back to Bangkok at 19.55. I would then fly to Germany with Royal Jordanian Airlines 4.5h later. That would mean that the wheelchair assistance in Bangkok could have picked me up at the Qantas aircraft and brought me directly to the gate of my next flight. There I would have waited for pre-boarding, and another assistant would have come later to bring me to the door of the aircraft. Now, with the changed return flight I arrived in Bangkok as early as 15.35. This meant I had to wait in Bangkok for 9h! Not only that – I could not check-in at Royal Jordanian because their counter would not even be open this early.

The assistant who picked me up at the Qantas aircraft dropped me off at a bench near one of the check-in areas and suggested I sit there and wait until the check-in opens. I asked him if I could at least keep the foldable wheelchair for the time, to be mobile. He told me it’s Qantas’s wheelchair and I will fly on with Royal Jordanian. Besides, he only has one wheelchair anyway and needs it to help the next passenger. I should sit here and wait until the check-in opens. He was not sure if it would be the check-in nearby, “or the other one further down the corridor”, but in about 6h I would be able to find out. With that, he left me.

In the end, I was sitting on a bench at Bangkok airport for over 7h. I had no food, no drink, I was not able to go to the toilet.

While I am able to walk short distances, I had my carry-on bag with me. And that is too much for me to carry. That I wouldn’t just leave it behind is I think self-explanatory. For the first couple of hours I was sitting there I was actually convinced that my former assistant would come back in time to help me to the Royal Jordanian check-in (wherever that was), so that one of their assistants could then take over. After all, the guy knew that I was literally stuck on that bench because I told him so when asking for a foldable wheelchair. I was wrong.

After 7h of sitting around I was sure that the check-in had been open for quite some time already, and I realised that this guy was not coming back for me. I had to get to the check-in, and for the life of me I did not know how. After about half an hour I managed to get myself noticed by a lady working at the information desk. She happened to be walking by and I could get her attention. I explained my dilemma to her, and she went to find the Royal Jordanian check-in – which was indeed “the one further down the corridor” as the world’s worst assistant had put it. Royal Jordanian send someone with a foldable wheelchair to pick me up and bring me to their check-in.

I had been on that bench for 7h. My back hurt, I was hungry, thirsty and in desperate need of a bathroom. And all this, because my “perfect” flights had to be changed because of an aircraft that couldn’t transport 100kg of electric wheelchair.

Part 4: Happy End

No. In all honesty, I wish there were one. This was the worst travel experience in my life. From before I even got on the first aircraft and the check-in crew told me they would not transport my wheelchair, to the moment I left the last aircraft and was left sitting around on a bench without a wheelchair or help for seven hours.

I wish I could at least learn something from this experience, realise what I did wrong and walk away from it smarter. But I fail to see my mistake. I booked the “perfect” flight. I gave Qantas all the information there is about the assistance I would need and the mobility aid I was bringing and answered all the questions they had until I got a letter of approval and the Okay to bring it.

I write and speak professionally on the topic of overcoming limitations. So the last thing that comes to my mind is going for pity. I am all for challenges, and I’m all for developing a mindset to overcome them. But that means that I can actually do something about it, or learn from it.
Instead imagine a guy driving to the check-in counter, bags on the lap, passport in hand, and being told by the crew that they’ll not transport his wheelchair no matter how many Okay’s and letters he has.
Imagine a person with a disability sitting at the airport in Bangkok on a bench for 7 hours, no food, no drink, no toilet, waiting for someone to bring him to the next check-in who never showed up. There was nothing I could have done different, nothing I can learn from this experience.

It was Qantas who screwed up big time here.

I am curious to see how serious you take this, how you plan to make up for it, or if you are able to tell me where I made a mistake.

Addendum 1: A word on Jetstar

When I was on the phone with the Qantas Dangerous Goods department, I took this opportunity to ask them that same question: “What on earth did I do wrong that this could happen?”
Their answer was succinct and almost indignant. One of my flights was with Jetstar, and I should have checked with them too.

I disagree with this completely. I booked my flight with Qantas. My booking reference was with Qantas. Every flight number on my ticket started with QF, and there was even that quaint flag with a kangaroo next to each one on the invoice. That Qantas decided to have those flights operated by a partner airlines is their responsibility. Of course there is a line on the ticket saying “operated by: Jetstar Asia”, so what. My business partner is Qantas.

If Qantas teams up with a partner airline they trust, why don’t they share relevant passenger information with each other – like the fact that a 100kg electric wheelchair needs to be transported. When I was in touch with Qantas customer service (and later their Dangerous Goods department) my booking number was always known to them, and therefore also that Jetstar was involved and that they were using an aircraft type unable to carry this wheelchair.

My intention is to find out how and why this horror trip could happen with Qantas despite my meticulous planning. Find out if this is something that will happen (or has happened) to other passengers with special needs – I doubt that I am the first passenger with special needs flying from Thailand to New Zealand since the invention of the electric wheelchair. Find out how Qantas intends to avoid such disasters in the future and how they intend to make up for it.

I eagerly await your response.

Kind regards,

Michael Herold

 

Attachments:
e-mail correspondence with Qantas Dangerous Goods
e-mail correspondence with Qantas Customer Support (in german)
e-ticket and invoice of original itinerary
e-ticket of changed itinerary
e-ticket of connecting flight with Royal Jordanian Airlines in Bangkok