Dec 242009

AUSTRALIA’S disability watchdog has renewed calls for the power to prosecute airlines that fail disabled travellers, following an incident in which Virgin Airlines lost track of a deaf and mute passenger supposedly in its care.

The passenger, 38-year-old Saras Wati Devi, should have been accompanied by Virgin Blue staff as she transited alone from a domestic flight from Melbourne to Brisbane to get on a Virgin Pacific Blue flight to Nadi in Fiji.

Despite Virgin’s ”meet and assist” instruction on her itinerary, that did not happen. Ms Devi missed her flight and the airline lost track of her whereabouts for five hours.

Ms Devi’s nephew, Surge Singh, was alerted when he received a voicemail message from Virgin that ”he” had missed ”his” Fiji flight.

This set in train a flurry of questions from Mr Singh to Virgin. Mr Singh, who helped his aunt board the plane in Melbourne, said Virgin Blue did not even know which state in Australia his aunt might be in.

”Virgin Blue … were more worried about excuses so they wouldn’t have to do any work,” he said.

He called police, and said other members of his family were in tears.

After five hours, staff from another airline found Ms Devi in the airport just as police arrived.

Once she was found, Pacific Blue staff stayed with her until she boarded the next flight, Mr Singh said. The family was yet to receive an apology or explanation, he said.

The incident is the latest in a number of complaints against the four major carriers – Qantas, Jetstar, Tiger Airways and Virgin Blue – for failing disabled travellers.

”I think it’s most unfair that individuals have to pursue large airlines,” said the Human Rights Commission’s disability discrimination commissioner, Graeme Innes.

”I’ve called for self-start powers whereby I can take an airline to court if I feel they’ve acted inappropriately and this [incident] just demonstrates the importance of the Government granting that power.”

Mr Innes has been asking for these powers for four years, and has spoken to the Attorney-General and the parliamentary secretary for disabilities about the matter.

– From