A British disabled woman traveling from London Gatwick to Johannesburg via Dubai accuses Emirates Airlines of discrimination and neglect.
Mrs Suzanne Bakkes, who suffers from Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and her partner Jon Blackburn will never forget their experience on Emirates Airlines.
On 24 September 2011, Suzanne and Jon boarded their Emirates flight from London Gatwick to Johannesburg via Dubai. "On the first leg of our journey the Emirates crew displayed excellent customer service skills, which were maintained throughout the flight, and Suzy felt well looked after," Jon says.
In the days prior to their departure, Suzanne called Emirates Airlines informing them of her condition and requirements. "Suzy told the person she spoke to that she suffered from CFS & FM, explained she could not walk very far on her own, and that she would require the use of a wheelchair," Jon recalls.
Mrs Bakkes was traveling with her own wheelchair. At Gatwick Emirates ground handling agent Russell asked if she would like her wheelchair available in Dubai. The Emirates employee informed the couple that the wheelchair would be tagged through to Dubai, so that it would be waiting by the plane door when the passenger left the aircraft. However, he warned Suzanne and Jon that they would need to have it retagged in Dubai before boarding the connecting flight.
Troubles began upon their arrival in Dubai. "We left the plane to discover no sign of Suzy’s wheelchair. There were three special assistance people waiting with wheelchairs, neither awaiting Suzy," Jon recalls. The flight's Purser stayed until Mrs Bakkes wheelchair was located and brought up to the air bridge after a long wait.
"I do feel that Emirates have not been provided with full details of Ms Bakkes condition, as our records show she was travelling as a non-medical passenger, a wheelchair was booked, and we were not notified in advance that she would want to have her own wheelchair on arrival at the door at each destination, and that she can manage steps if necessary," says Mrs Mandy Cook, complaint handler at Emirates Customer Affairs office in the UK.
The Purser on the connecting flight informed the couple he had been told of the wheelchair issue at arrival and offered to store Suzanne's mobility device on board the aircraft, to reduce her wait upon arrival in Johannesburg.
Things began to go downhill from that point onward. Suzanne and Jon complained about their seating arrangement with flight attendants to no availability. "My partner’s legs were getting more and more sore. There were empty seats, but they did not allow us to move, despite our repeated requests to the stewardess," Jon recalls.
"Shortly after Suzy gave up sitting, and stood (using both her sticks) in the area behind our seats next to the toilet. On two separate occasions, Suzy was bumped into by flight attendants carrying jugs of hot liquid – firstly coffee, then tea."
Their arrival in Johannesburg revealed to be the worst part of the flight. "Fortunately, by the time we got to the door of the plane, Suzy’s chair had been placed on the air bridge waiting for her. I locked the remaining pieces in place and added her cushions. As she was sitting down, the Purser leant forward and unlocked the brake," Jon remembers with horror. "Suzy’s wheelchair then rolled backwards – with her in it – into the concertina walls of the air bridge, much to her distress and alarm."
"Cabin crew members are not ‘carers’ for any passengers on board. They are there to operate the flight and provide in-flight services. If Ms Bakkes could not attend to her own needs on board, this should have been brought to our attention at the time of booking," reiterates Emirates Airlines. "When this happens further medical details are requested by our Medical Section in Dubai, and the passenger and their doctor have to complete a form for this to be considered further by our Medical Section, to see if we are able to meet the passengers’ needs."
"We spoke with Emirates telephone operations twice, rebuts Jon. "If calls are indeed recorded as I was informed by the recorded message that was played before we could speak to someone directly, I would assume that Emirates can listen to precisely what we said, and what we were told. It seems, however, that Emirates Airlines does not communicate information about disabled travellers in anything like an effective manner."
At the end of a three week holiday in Botswana, the couple began their journey back to the UK. On both legs of their return flight, Suzanne's wheelchair was returned with long delays. Their pre-booked seating assignment was changed on both flights, and Mrs Bakkes ended up flying in seats unsuitable for her condition.
"Not a single crew member asked if they could help with our belongings or whether Suzy would like to be moved by the wheelchair [Note: on board wheelchair to help passengers with disabilities move about the cabin or to the toilets], but while we were attempting to get our belongings together, we had the menu thrust into our faces," Jon says.
"I have obtained reports from Mrs Bakkes' flights, and I must advise that the points made do not concur with the information in the reports made at the time, and it would seem that our crew members have made an effort to make the flights more comfortable," Mandy Cook said. "Cabin crew members are not permitted to assist passengers with bags for health and safety reasons. It is not up to the crew to anticipate the passenger’s needs or requirements. If Ms Bakkes wished to use the on-board wheelchair, the crew would have been happy to oblige. Again this could have been brought to our attention at the time of booking."
Jon Blackburn points out that the Emirates website special assistance sections say that “Assistance with stowing and retrieval of carry-on items and small assistive devices permitted to be carried on board the aircraft is furnished upon request.”
Suzanne Bakkes is still recovering from the pain and suffering caused by inflight experience with Emirates Airlines. "Suzy has not been right since the flights, has spent over 2 months off work, and now is on three times the pain killing medication she was on before the flights," Jon says.
"Perhaps it is cynical of me to suggest this," Jon adds. “Everything was fine with the flight from Gatwick to Dubai, the only part of our trip that would have required Emirates to abide by EU regulations regarding the transportation of passengers with reduced mobility."
"I am not complaining to get anything from Emirates," Jon concluded." I just want to warn disabled passengers, hoping they will be treated as a human being, rather than an annoyance to be ignored."
"Emirates Airline places a great deal of emphasis on the high standard of in-flight service and facilities that are provided to all passengers," Emirates said.