Skift Take

Travel industry, ensure the safety of passengers with disabilities while in transit and deliver their assistive devices as per their needs. There is no universal design for disability. But there is one for empathy.

Series: Viewpoint

For our Viewpoint series, Skift invites thought leaders, some from the less obvious corners of travel, to join in the conversation. We know that these independent voices are important to the dialogue within the industry. Our guest columnists will identify and shape what global trends and through lines will define the future of travel.

As someone who has saved her best dresses for her visit to Paris, I am not too sure if it will be on Air France. The reason being the airline needs to update and upgrade its understanding of disability. But I am here to help with that pro bono. Or maybe in exchange for some macarons.

Wheelchair Delivery at the Aircraft Gate

I was on your carrier on Dec. 12, 2022, traveling from Lisbon to Dubai to speak at Skift Global Forum East, a conference about the future of travel. My talk was about empathy towards people with disabilities. What are the odds? But as I arrived in Dubai, I sat for more than 40 minutes in the aircraft waiting for my wheelchair. This is a provision all good airlines ensure without the daunting effect of waiting with uncertainty as cleaners start cleaning the aircraft. The head of crew then intimated me and made me feel stubborn for asking for my wheelchair repeatedly from the moment of check-in. He asked me to get off on the airport wheelchair while I “stood” my ground and told him that he was violating my human rights. 

A simple rule of thumb is to know that assistive devices and wheelchairs are like a person’s body. A wheelchair is not baggage. It is like our legs and who wants to see their legs on a conveyer belt? The cane is not baggage for a visually impaired person. Have you ever seen eyeballs being collected from a booth? 

Empathy

Although I admire wheelchairs being available at airports, passengers with a disability must be given the choice to choose whether they want to use the airport wheelchair or their own. If they have their own, then it must be provided at the aircraft door while exiting because most of us cannot function in long transits without it. For example, going to the bathroom is a private matter and on an alien wheelchair, it becomes a difficult task.

Sadly, the same episode repeated itself on the journey back from Paris to Lisbon on Dec. 16, 2022, and this time, I lacked the energy to fight and decided to get off with the airport wheelchair but the staff expected me to carry my 15 kilogram heavy wheelchair battery myself. I looked at the airline crew with questioning eyes that all of this could have been avoided if my wheelchair was given to me at the door. I could have continued being an independent person but now sitting in an alien wheelchair that is uncomfortable, I do feel disabled. Thanks!

A macaron Tanzila Khan obtained at the airport in Paris. Source: Tanzila Khan

Responsibility

The entire crew stood there blaming the staff, the system, or the ground staff both times. At Dubai Airport, I finally got my wheelchair due to the efforts by an officer from Dnata. I deeply admire Syed Kashib Ali Rizvi for doing this for me. The thing is it does not matter who comes to assist at the aircraft door. It could be a company or your uncle.

What matters is whom have I paid to get myself transported intact to my destination. The airline? Hence Air France is responsible to ensure my dignity is not compromised for their lack of sensitivity towards disability. If your standard of best is getting the passenger transported alive, then you are doing a great job. But if it is getting disabled passengers transported with dignity and safety, then you have failed.

This is also not the first time when Air France left me wanting to have feet. I was in transit for a few hours in Paris in January 2022 when I was again not provided my wheelchair. Instead, I was given a broken wheelchair, with my 15 kilogram battery placed on my lap, and left in the middle of the transit area all by myself. I could not move, go to the bathroom or get food for myself. I had no way of asking for help since I did not speak French. This was the most discouraging experience for me and I don’t want any person with a disability to ever experience this nightmare.

I hope Air France can sensitize their staff and learn about disability from such experiences, ensuring assistance that is practical and not just an outdated system. Ensure the safety of passengers with disabilities while in transit and deliver their assistive devices as per their needs. There is no universal design for disability. But there is one for empathy. It comes from the heart and inclusive leadership. People with disabilities do not need a favor but we need equal space in all systems on dignity in all experiences as per their definitions and not yours. We don’t mind getting in line, I got in one for macarons at the airport. But we do mind outdated definitions of inclusion which I am sure you will update now. 

Best,
Tanzila Khan

Tanzila Khan is a disability rights activist who recently spoke at Skift Global Forum East. This post first appeared on her website.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We asked Air France for comment on some of Khan’s allegations here. We did not hear back from the airline as of publication time.

UPDATE: After Skift published this column, Air France finally responded with a statement, which included: “Air France investigated and confirmed that the customer was only able to retrieve her own wheelchair at the door of the aircraft after a certain amount of time had passed due to operational difficulties (getting the chair up the stairs of the boarding bridge). A wheelchair was also offered to the customer by the airport services to facilitate her disembarkation while waiting for her own wheelchair.

“This experience does not represent the Air France service that the customer is entitled to and expects, and it is taking this feedback to look at how to improve in the future. The airline’s commercial services are in contact with the customer.

Air France is fully committed to its passengers with disabilities, working to allow them to travel safely and in a comfortable way. Twenty years ago, it created ‘Saphir”, a service with dedicated agents that help organize a smooth trip for travelers with disabilities.”

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Tags: air france, disabilities, mobility, sgfe2022, travelers with disabilites

Photo credit: Tanzila Khan speaking at Skift Global Forum East Skift

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