What is it about?

The rollercoaster adventures of parenting three kids, dealing with disability and mental health - and discussing disability discrimination and how to tackle it.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Virgin Australia

How do you take a 50kg wheelchair user to the toilet on a 4 hour Virgin Australia flight. You drag or carry them is how!

My father-in-law booked us (him and his wife plus the five of us) on a lovely and much needed break to Fiji. He still had some outstanding Virgin Australia tickets from the trip to Bali we missed out on when hubby broke his ankle last year. So Virgin Australia it was, Sydney to Nadi, and SoftiTel on Demerau, a resort style hotel close to the airport to minimize traveling, swimmers in the suitcase.

After our recent experience traveling to Alaska and Vancouver Island with two wheelies, we knew the ropes. Hubby rang both the hotel and the airline to check and double check they were aware and prepared for wheelchairs. Also, at the time of our booking (in the first half of this year) we had one child using a wheelchair, but now we have two, so best to notify everyone of this additional set of wheels.

Hubby rang Virgin Australia and started a complicated game of phone tag between Virgin Australia Holidays and Airlines. No one could quite work out whose responsibility our complicated request might be.  

Eventually someone with some sort of authority assured us that yes, we could take the wheelchairs to the door of the plane (thanks Kurt Fearnley!) and yes, there would be an aisle chair available. We requested and received seats close to the toilets and all of us would be seated together.

We headed off to Sydney Airport on Saturday (28/09/2014) for our four hour flight to Fiji (VA 183 from Sydney to Nadi). We headed off early because we have learned from experience that checking in five people, including two wheelchairs, takes ages. We don't mind too much, it's part and parcel of our situation, and we lighten the mood by joking about it with the poor check in person who drew the short straw and ended up with us.

We were able to take our wheelchairs to the door of the plane where I then carried BooBoo (8 years old and 20kg) to her seat (4th row) and one of those skinny aisle wheelchairs took Beaver (13 years old and 50kg) to his seat. For those wondering why I carry BooBoo - she cannot sit safely in the aile chairs the airlines provide and well, she’s still light enough.

Of course, we were not seated together. Our wonderful cabin crew took pity on our 11 year old and got another passenger to move. All good.

Except two hours into the flight I needed to take the oldest to the toilet. So I asked for the aisle chair. Our lovely flight attendant Lynska went red as a beetroot and explained to me that, eh, there wasn’t one. Never had been.

I was stunned.

So, how am I meant to change my son?

Eh. You could change him in his seat?

I bloody well will not. He is a 13 year old boy who has recently lost the use of his legs and became incontinent. I will NOT put him through the indignity of changing his nappy in front of a hundred people.

There were no other alternatives, so I lifted him up and carried him. Well, dragged him. Can’t quite carry a 50 kg dead weight person in a narrow aisle. My bad.

Lynska was possibly even more horrified than I was. She immediately wrote out an incident report and promised to email it to HQ that very evening. She wanted to know the details of our return flight and she would see what she could organize for us. She was deeply embarrassed by the situation, and I thank her for that.

On the way back to Sydney, of course, the same thing happened. This time our flight attendant (unfortunately I don’t remember her name) didn’t really care. She did explain to me that aisle chairs are only carried on board on long haul flights. There never have been any aisle chairs on board on “short” flights – not even when it is very clear from the booking that a wheelchair-using passenger is on board.

She didn’t really get why I was indignant – until I asked her if I shall just let my son soil himself and his seat (knowing full well that the cabin crew also clean the cabin at Virgin Australia). Suddenly she saw my point that one of them teeny tiny fold up aisle chairs might not be such a bad idea.

I have since contacted Virgin Australia (via Twitter). They were “very concerned” and “very sorry” and would ring me back.

Haven’t got a phone call yet. Funny that.

Seriously, if my son’s dignity wasn’t involved in all this, I would be sorely tempted to let him shit is pants and see what happens…


Robyn Hawke said...

A great post and hoping that Virgin have rectified the situation next time you fly.


Anonymous said...

Hi Heike
I work at the Project, we'd love to speak to you. Could you please call me urgently on 0404 943 213.
Thanks, look forward to speaking with you.