By Sarah Slater
A wheelchair user who said that she was left humiliated and forced to miss a flight by an airline wants disabled travellers to be treated with the dignity they deserve.
Fiona Weldon, a lecturer and researcher at the national Anti-Bullying Centre in Dublin City University, experienced difficulties with two airlines - Ryanair and Are Lingus - when travelling earlier this year.
Fiona said: "I feel very strongly that disabled travellers should be treated with the same dignity and respect that is affording to non-disabled paying travellers.
"Why should I or anyone else be treated any differently just because they use a wheelchair?
“Why can't Ryanair and Aer Lingus keep records of disabled passengers wheelchairs details and the type of support needed?
On January 25 this year, Fiona, accompanied by her husband and family, travelled to London for a wedding on a Ryanair flight.
She sent in details of her electric wheelchair such as its height, weight, and type of battery used, to the airline.
"I also let them know that I would also need assistance from OCS mobility services on and off the aircraft both in Dublin and London and on my returning flights on January 29," she said.
"I was returning from London to Dublin or so I thought on January 29. I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. I had checked in online and sent in details of my electric wheelchair.
"When I arrived at the airport I went straight through security I believed that I had checked in. I had informed the airline of my assistance previously."
When Fiona presented herself at the boarding gate she was stopped because the hostess had no information about her details.
"I was told that I had not presented myself at the check-in desk," she said.
"They told me that they didn't know I was travelling.
"I had checked in online but I was told that this was not good enough. The Ryanair personal at the gate informed me that they could not take my chair onboard because it needed to go to a different area and it was a long way away.
"I have often travelled with Ryanair and they have taken my chair from me at the aircraft door."
The end result was that Fiona and her husband were not allowed on to the plane because she did not physically present herself at the check-in desk on arrival.
"I was told that I would have to go to the Ryanair help desk to seek assistance," she said.
"The Ryanair representative informed me that I may have to pay for the flight also. I told her that I would refuse to pay but thankfully she arranged a new flight for myself and my husband and I didn't have to pay.
"This experience ended up being a total nightmare, my lift was gone from Dublin and we ended up having to get a taxi from the airport which cost €70.
"It was madness, in all the flights I’ve been on my wheelchair is always taken off my at the aircraft."
In a statement, Ryanair said: “Wheelchair services at London Gatwick are operated by service provider Omniserv and London Gatwick is responsible for this service. “
"In this instance, this customer did not present herself to the airport’s special assistance desk and as a result, when she arrived at the boarding gate, there was no one from the airport in place to assist her and her wheelchair safely on board and the flight departed.”
Meanwhile, Aer Lingus apologised to Fiona for the upset caused to her and her Personal Assistant while trying to board a flight in Lisbon, Portugal when she was returning from a conference there last month.
Again, Fiona contacted Aer Lingus and informed them that wheelchair assistance to her flight was needed.
“When I arrived in Lisbon airport on the day of my departure, the ground hostess at the check-in desk did not receive any information regarding my wheelchair," she said.
"I told her that I had sent in the details the day before.
"She proceeded to contact her supervisor and he said that I needed to leave my chair in the oversized baggage and that I was to carry my battery myself onto the plane, this I knew was ridiculous. It took an hour to sort it out.
"I went to the oversized baggage area with the OCS representative who had wheeled me over in a chair and gave in my electronic chair to their security people.
"We then proceeded to airport security where we were searched and again they wanted to know why I had my wheelchair battery.
"I told them that I was told that it must travel with me onto the plane. They were confused and so was the OCS person. They proceeded to ring to get authorisation – this was another waiting game and another 20 minute of a wait.
"We proceeded to the boarding gate after getting authorisation. Thankfully our flight was delayed coming from Dublin, with all the delays we had getting through the airport checks, we would have missed our flight back to Dublin.
"I then proceeded to my seat on the aircraft. I sat down and the air hostess asked me what was in my battery.
QOUTE "She was the third person in two and half hours to ask me the same question. She had to ask the pilot if it was OK to keep the battery with me. She came back to inform me that they needed to bring the battery to the hold where my chair was.
“At this stage, it was an: ‘Oh My God’ feeling. Both my PA and I and were exhausted by everything that had happened. We were both so stressed and just wanted to go home.”
In response, Aer Lingus said: "While we did receive details of Ms Weldon’s wheelchair request through our Special Assistance form, the specific details of the wheelchair being electric were missed due to an administrative error.
"Lithium batteries are classed as hazardous goods and as such it is normal procedure to make checks on these items upon check-in.
"We recognise that this was not a pleasant experience for Ms Weldon and would like to apologise to her for this oversight and the subsequent difficulty she had while travelling back from Lisbon airport."
Fiona added: "I feel that it is of the great importance that this issue is highlighted and that it never happens again to anyone else.”