The recent disruptions in air travel across Europe resulted in widely-published scenes of mass chaos at airports that, for many people, evoke the worst features of air travel.  Even when done well, the nature of modern air travel often does subject passengers to long queues, delays, invasive security screenings, and difficulties embarking and disembarking. One group for whom this can be particularly toiling, is persons with disabilities.

Globally, the travelling experience of passengers with disabilities varies widely. For example, the Australian press reported an incident in which Australian Paralympian Karni Liddell was not permitted to board a flight from Brisbane earlier this year, on the ground that she had not notified the airline, five days prior to her departure in accordance with its policies that she, as a passenger with a disability, would be travelling. Liddell was reported to have received numerous texts from other passengers with disabilities who had received similar treatment.

By comparison, some jurisdictions have put in place legislative measures specifically designed to protect persons with disabilities during the course of air travel. In the United States, all domestic flights, and all international flights that have the US as the point of departure or arrival, are required to comply with the Air Carrier Access Act. The Department of Transport has, in terms of that Act, enacted a Rule (‘the DOT Rule”) which prohibits a number of practices, some of which are commonplace elsewhere – such as the requirement to provide advanced notice to the airline that a passenger with a disability is travelling, or placing limitations on the number of wheelchairs that will be carried on any particular flight. The DOT Rule is extensive and also mandates other services and accessibility provisions that airlines must provide, including assistance with embarking and disembarking and priority for wheelchairs and other accessibility devices over other luggage in an aircraft hold.  Many of the international carriers servicing South Africa have operations in the US and some, notably SAA, advertise on their websites that they comply with the DOT Rule.

Despite these protections, persons with disabilities continue to be vulnerable to infringements of their rights during air travel. The US Bureau of Transportation Statistics publishes annual reports detailing complaints received by participating airlines. In the 2018 reporting year (the last full year of statistics prior to the pandemic) airlines (operating in the US) reported over 32 000 disability-related complaints.  Nearly half of the complaints related to the failure to provide adequate assistance to travellers using wheelchairs.  More recently, for the first six months of 2022, the Bureau reported 886 disability-related complaints, nearly twice as many as had been received during the first six months of 2021.

In South Africa, discrimination against persons with disabilities is prohibited under the Constitution and its operative legislation, such as the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, 2000. However, there is comparatively little guidance available to air service operators in South Africa to ensure a uniform set of agreed norms and standards regarding the carriage of passengers with disabilities. Part 121, subpart 7 of the Civil Aviation Regulations provides some guidelines for the carriage of persons with disabilities, however these fall under the rubric of inflight cabin safety and are not primarily concerned with accessibility considerations.

In the result, domestic air service operators in South Africa are largely left to their own devices and this can lead to confusion and imposes an unnecessary additional burden on passengers with disabilities to ensure compliance with the requirements of a particular carrier. 

One problem, frequently encountered, concerns battery-powered wheelchairs.  At Manchester Airport in 2008, baggage handlers unloading a 757 observed sparks from the battery bank of an electric wheelchair, which, shortly after offloading from the aircraft, caught fire. The International Air Transport Association (“IATA”) has accordingly published a document titled “Battery-Powered Wheelchair and Mobility Aid Guidance”  in which powered-wheelchairs are classified as dangerous goods when carried by air.  The IATA Guidelines require that the electrical ports of any built-in battery-powered devices must be isolated according to the manufacturer’s instructions or the airline policy prior to loading the device onto the aircraft.

What that means in practice, however, is not always clear and once again expectations may vary widely in different jurisdictions. For travellers in the US, the position is relatively clear.  The DOT Rule mandates that airlines must accept battery-powered wheelchairs, including the batteries. The airline is responsible to package the batteries in appropriate materials when necessary, and must provide the packaging free of charge.

For travellers in South Africa, by comparison, the position is far less clear –

  • Some domestic carriers do not permit wheelchairs exceeding a certain weight threshold. Where this weight is exceeded, as it would be for most powered wheelchairs, the passenger is required to ship the wheelchair separately.
  • Other domestic carriers will carry powered wheelchairs, but require the passenger to forward pictures of the battery used in their mobility device to ascertain the type of battery and whether it can be separated from the device and its ports adequately secured to prevent discharge.
  • Some carriers limit the number of disabled passengers who will be carried on a specific flight, on a first come first served model.

Uncertainty around expectations can frequently lead to problems at the point of embarkation, which, while no doubt sincere in their efforts to assist, gate agents and cabin crew are not best-placed to handle. Both carrier and passenger would doubtless want to avoid a situation such as occurred in Germany, when a 19 year old passenger with a disability was disembarked from an aircraft after the cabin crew observed that the passenger had failed to disconnect and isolate the battery in his mobility device.  The crew could not determine the appropriate way to do so in the time available and ultimately the aircraft departed without the passenger.

While by no means a uniquely South African issue, regularising, standardising and advertising the approach to be taken on issues such as the carriage of powered wheelchairs and their batteries would go a long way to improving the travel experience for passengers with disabilities.  A published set of norms and standards to which all air service operators in South Africa subscribe would certainly help to prevent disputes by ensuring that both passenger and carrier know what is required of them ahead of time.