It was not the usual mad rush of passengers or the onslaught of porters that made Naveeduddin Khan anxious when he was about to board a train to Multan earlier this year. He was worried of how he was going to make it to his seat.
As the situation unfolded, some men lifted him off the platform and put him on the train. Once inside, he crawled on his elbows, bruising his arms and gathering dirt and greasy lubricant, while making his way to the seat. Getting on-board this way was humiliating - the story of all handicapped passengers travelling via trains.
But this episode was nothing compared to the embarrassment he endured while trying to book a flight on a private airline. “They don’t sell tickets to physically-challenged people,” he said angrily. “I had to cancel my family vacations to Islamabad as the airlines would not assist me.”
Khan has a leg deformity due to polio disease. For within city commute, he drives his especially modified three-wheeler automatic car but when it comes to travelling to other cities, he finds himself with limited options as two private airlines in the country - Shaheen Air and Airblue - do not entertain people requiring wheelchair access.
“Sorry, we don’t provide attendants and don’t allow wheelchairs inside the planes,” claimed a ticket-reservation operator at Shaheen Air. “Only those who can walk are permitted to travel.”
The attitude is no different at Airblue. “Handicapped persons would have to get their own attendants to carry them and climb up the stairs to the plane,” said an Airblue official. Wheelchairs cannot be taken to the plane as “there is no space for it,” he added.
Shaheen Air has no provisions for disabled persons under the conditions of carriage. However, the conditions do state that the carrier has the right to refuse passengers requiring special assistance.
“We will have to load bridges to transport people requiring wheelchair access to planes,” a spokesperson for Airblue, Raheel Ahmed, said. “We don’t have them in Islamabad or Peshawar, and the ones in Karachi are always booked.”
Ahmed explains the risk involved in transporting such passengers. “Even if we provide a porter to carry the disabled persons through stairs, a slip from the porter could cost the airline a lot of money.”
Airblue’s spokesperson says that only the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) has an ambulift - a crane to lift wheelchairs. “If we rent it from them, we will be charged in dollars.”
Expressing regret over such a problem, he said that the airline did take special children for the Paralympics last year but they have limitations. “Airblue has an all-female crew. Even if we take such passengers, who would help them use the bathroom?”
Meanwhile, Civil Aviation Authority’s spokesperson Mehmood Hussain said that it depended on the policy of the airlines of whether or not to assist such travellers. PIA complies with the rules of the US Department of Transportation on the travel of disabled persons. Under 14 CFR part-382 of the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines may not refuse transportation to people with disabilities. PIA’s spokesperson Mashood Tajwar confirmed that their attendants made sure that the handicapped persons were allowed on-board.
Violation of human rights?
Khan, who also runs the Disabled Welfare Association, has taken the matter to the Human Rights Commission (HRCP) of Pakistan. “Action should be taken against these airlines. Why are we being discriminated against? They should shutdown their operations if they cannot facilitate us.” HRCP coordinator in Sindh, Syed Shamsuddin, has written letters to both airlines, urging them to rectify their unfair policies.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2013.