The story of the Indigo Airlines incident involving a teenager with a hidden disability is not just an aviation story. It's a story about two completely different worlds that still struggle to understand each other.
This is the story of a teenager who was denied boarding at an airport in India because he was having a meltdown related to his hidden disability. This story raises the question of how airlines, IndiGo, in this case, regulators, and the media should handle the situation with children with hidden disabilities and what are the best practices to ensure that they are not discriminated against.
I have been struggling to process the incident, and all of the reactions it triggered. I also feel uneasy with the airline's behavior in the aftermath of the media frenzy that followed.
Is it common for people with disabilities to be denied boarding?
Every day, dozens of people are being turned away from a flight because they do not meet the minimum requirements put in place by the airline. These requirements can be anything as simple as not having an updated passport or not having a valid ticket. Truth be told, being barred from a flight on the grounds of disability is extremely rare. In the past few years, there have been a few cases where a hidden condition triggered a violent outburst at the time of boarding, leading to some passengers being barred from their flight. Others have been re-routed on different flights because their mobility equipment would not fit in the plane's cargo hold. To the best of my memory, I do not recall any instance where disability alone was used to deny boarding. Perhaps this is because every major country's antidiscrimination laws have been updated to state that airlines cannot deny boarding to disabled people.
The role of Social Media in holding airlines and airports to account
Social media is a powerful way of connecting with other people, that's why it plays an important role in complaints related to disabilities. The role of social media in disability-related complaints is to provide a platform for those with disabilities to talk about their experiences and express themselves without having to try to gain access to mainstream media. While there are some limitations in the type of topics that can be discussed, disability-related complaints have an opportunity to be heard, rather than remain unheard.
In the case of the incident involving denial of boarding by IndiGo ground staff, social media increased public awareness. Within hours of videos about this incident surfacing on Facebook, news began spreading across mainstream media.
The downside of these otherwise important tools is that they share subjective, unverified views and are initially one-sided. We only heard the airline's version of the story as a reaction to the outrage and indignation voiced on social media.
Are India’s ministers and regulators doing their jobs right?
I would say to a certain extent, yes and no. I found the reaction of India's Aviation Minister to be completely out of line and offensive. He said on Twitter: “Investigating the matter by myself, post which appropriate action will be taken.” Only populists and dictators consider themselves judge, jury, and executioner. That's the type of behavior that should be enough to stop someone from holding any public office.
On the other hand, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation in India, who are responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination legislation in aviation acted correctly. A DGCA team will review the incident report given by IndiGo Airlines and take appropriate steps at the conclusion of their investigation.
Regulatory oversight is prevalent in many countries, so air carriers are unable to take advantage of loopholes or sweep problems under the proverbial rug. Fines can quickly arise if airlines break anti-discrimination rules, and they're designed to create an incentive for the carrier to do things by the book.
Has IndiGo acted correctly in the aftermath of the incident?
The short answer is no. I've interacted with a number of CEOs at airlines over the years who challenge my own views on things. They were all pragmatic and open to discussing problems that needed solving. To me, what IndiGo’s CEO said in his statement to the media was puzzling.
"We recognize too well that parents who dedicate their lives to the caring of physically challenged persons are the true heroes of our society. We offer our sincere regrets to the affected family for the unfortunate experience and as a small token of our appreciation of their lifelong dedication would like to offer to purchase an electric wheelchair for their son," IndiGo CEO Ronojoy Dutta said.
If you want to solve a problem, forget about throwing a cheque at it. Stop treating the issue and start thinking about true solutions. I would have expected Mr. Dutta to launch an internal investigation and come back with answers about the specific incident and a plan to prevent it from happening again.
Can airlines accommodate the needs of passengers with hidden disabilities?
The short answer is 'yes.' Fortunately, many airlines are investing in making air travel inclusive and accessible in the process. This is why it is so important to let the airline know of your needs at the time of booking the flight. We recently published a comprehensive guide that can help travelers with hidden disabilities to prepare for their flight and make the most of their experience.
The first step that Indigo Airlines should take to improve their service is to make sure they provide enough training to their employees on how to identify people with hidden disabilities and what they might need.
It can be easy for a family member to feel overwhelmed by all of the tasks that need to be accomplished to prepare for their loved one's flight. The result is often a lack of preparation and simple mistakes made out of worry, which can also contribute to the emotional burden that many people with hidden disabilities feel during their journey through the airport and inflight. Airports and airlines are increasingly providing extensively-researched information related to the journey for passengers with hidden disabilities in order to help them better understand what might happen.
The dilemma some people find themselves in is that they make a mistake and then repeat it. There is no shame in making a mistake, even if the result was not ideal. What truly matters is to learn from mistakes so they won't happen again.