Help for the disabled is up in the air
Apanee Mitthong was dismayed at the service of Thai Smile, the sister company of Thai Airways, when she was not allowed to board a flight from Suvarnabhumi International Airport to Hat Yai, in November.
She demanded an explanation and learned that the airline had stopped its assistant services for people with disabilities. Apanee is paralysed from the waist down and needed help to board the flight. Not only did she demand an apology from the airline, she also wanted to ensure that other disabled people travel smoothly with all airlines in Thailand.
She started an online campaign on Change.org on Nov 11. She asked Thai Smile, other low cost airlines and the Airports of Thailand (AoT) to provide equality of service for all.
Her petition is ongoing. More than 19,500 people have so far signed, closing in on her target of 25,000.
"I was denied because of my disability. I just want to protect my rights," she told me during a phone interview.
"I want my case to be the beginning of change for airlines and all airports [in Thailand] to offer equal services for people with disabilities," she said, adding that it is a fundamental right of anyone to enjoy the liberty of travel.
To follow up with her case, I contacted Thai Smile. Its branding and marketing communications director directed my call to a customer service staff member, who admitted that the airline had temporarily stopped services for those with disabilities near the end of last year. The reasoning behind the decision was that Thai Smile was concerned for passengers' safety.
"In some situations, carrying a passenger with disabilities up the steps to the aircraft is a bit risky," she said.
Before Apanee, the airline had never before received such a complaint from people with disabilities.
From Nov 6 to Dec 14, Thai Smile did not record any passengers travelling with wheelchairs at Suvarnabhumi airport, but had a record of wheelchair service available at Don Mueang airport.
The service at Don Mueang airport, however, was limited to two groups of passengers — those who couldn't walk for long distances and those with disabilities rending them unable to move themselves to the aircraft. There was no record of wheelchair service to help those who are completely immobile, like Apanee.
At the beginning of December, the Ministry of Transport's National Office for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities asked to meet with representatives of Thai Smile after they received Apanee's complaint. Its subcommittee for eliminating discrimination against disabled persons ordered Thai Smile to follow the law.
By ministerial law of the Ministry of Transport, airlines are required to provide assistance to passengers with disabilities while boarding and disembarking aircraft. This includes the availability of wheelchairs, mechanical lifts and service personnel.
The airline resumed services for people with disabilities at Suvarnabhumi airport in the middle of December. Statistics gathered during the last two weeks of that month showed that 1% of 239 outbound and 2% of 196 inbound passengers who used wheelchairs are completely immobile. From Jan 1-27, the airline's records show that number is 3%, out of 459 departing and 482 arriving passengers.
Apanee's voice has been heard, but her case is only the tip of the iceberg for unequal access to airports and airline services. By ministerial rule, access to a mechanical lift is required for passengers with disabilities, allowing them to ascend and descend from the aircraft. However, the law does not state who must provide the equipment, or enforce a penalty if there is no such facility.
AoT limits its responsibility for people with disabilities to facilities within its buildings, such as ramps, toilets and car parks. The mechanical lift, it said, is part of the airline's ground services.
When I checked with a few airlines, representatives said they physically carried the passengers up and down steps if there was no boarding bridge. Sometimes the passenger's relatives would carry them to reduce feelings of discomfort. Many airports in the Thailand do not have boarding bridges or mechanical lifts to aircraft, especially domestic airports managed by private companies and by the Department of Civil Aviation, such as at Nakhon Si Thammarat and Loei.
Although the total number of passengers travelling with wheelchairs is small, they nonetheless must receive service equal to other passengers. It is a shame no party wants to take responsibility of serving those with disabilities. There is the rule of law, but a lack of enforcement. Perhaps the Transport Minister, ACM Prajin Juntong, should take charge.
Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for the Life section.
Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for Life section.