Improving air travel for people with disability 

Improving air travel for people with disability 

We work with people with disability to remove the barriers that restrict their ability to travel by air. Our test cases and advocacy make systems safer and more accessible: from booking a ticket to disembarking the plane. 

These are just some of the cases we have run against airlines and airports to everyone can enjoy the right to travel.   

Defeating Virgin Blue’s unfair travel policy 

In 2006, Virgin Blue changed a policy that made air travel prohibitively expensive for many people with disability.  

The Independent Travel Criteria said people who could not fasten their seatbelt, or put on an oxygen mask or lifejacket without assistance had to travel with a paying companion. This effectively doubled the cost of air travel for wheelchair users and other people with disability. 

The Centre (then PIAC) represented Maurice Corcoran, president of the Federation of Disability Organisations, and fellow passenger Tom Ferguson in disability discrimination complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission. When the complaints could not be resolved, we took the cases to the Federal Court. 

Early in the proceedings, we sought a cost cap to allow the case to proceed without significant financial risk for our clients. Justice Bennett capped costs at $15,000 for Mr Ferguson and $40,000 for Mr Corcoran and noted in her judgment

‘The ability of disabled persons to fly with Virgin, a major commercial airline in Australia, without the extra cost of a carer raises questions of public interest beyond the private interests of the applicant.’ 

The complaints were ultimately resolved by mediation prior to hearing, in January 2009. 

In October 2009, Virgin Blue released revised Independent Travel Criteria which allowed people with a disability to travel without having to pay for a companion. 

Media coverage 

ABC News, Virgin wheelchair policy discriminatory, groups say, 30 May 2006 

Sydney Morning Herald, Virgin backs down in disability row, 2 June 2006 

Sydney Morning Herald, Virgin disabled policy suit ‘in public interest’, 19 June 2008 

Equal treatment in security screening  

Following a ‘humiliating and distressing’ experience while passing through security screening at Adelaide Airport with his assistance dog in May 2022, former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes engaged us to bring disability discrimination complaint against Adelaide Airport, Sydney Night Patrol (the airport security contractor), and the Department of Home Affairs (the body that regulates security screening processes at airports). 

As reported by ABC News, Graeme was refused access to a body scanner for screening and was required to use a walk-through X-ray scanner, with his guide dog put through separately. Graeme’s colleague then had to intervene and question airport staff after a security guard said Graeme needed a pat down, despite him not triggering the security alarm. 

We represented Graeme before the Australian Human Rights Commission to resolve his dispute with Adelaide Airport on positive terms, including a commitment to systemic changes. In a joint statement, the Airport committed to improving the experience of passengers with disability using the airport.  

Bodhi’s Jetstar challenge for electric wheelchair users 

Air travel can be particularly challenging for customers travelling with electric wheelchairs.  

We represented disability advocate Bodhi Boele and his mother Heike Fabig in a disability discrimination claim against Jetstar following a flight in 2019. 

Bodhi Boele relied on his customised electric wheelchair for independence and safety. He let Jetstar know that he needed to remain in his wheelchair up until the departure gate and receive his electric wheelchair at the arrival gate, Despite this, Bodhi was required to transfer to a manual Jetstar wheelchair at the check-in area. 

As Heike explained, ‘This means customers must be pushed in the Jetstar wheelchair by someone else from the check-in area to the gate and to access the food court and shops.’ 

When the matter resolved, a statement by Jetstar confirmed that Bodhi’s experience had contributed to enhanced awareness of the challenges faced by customers travelling with electric wheelchairs. 

As Heike points out: ‘Air travel should be accessible to all. As well as the pleasures of travel, it allows us to develop and maintain friendships and family connections, employment, education, sport and feel fully included in society’. 

Challenging Qantas over its unfair assistance animals policy 

Rachael Fullerton has a disability and her assistance dog Strike is trained to provide her with psychological and physical support. But Qantas will not allow Strike to travel on its flights with Rachael.  

In 2023 we filed a disability discrimination claim against Qantas in the Federal Court for Rachael Fullerton. 

Strike has passed a required Public Access Test for assistance dogs and is registered as an assistance animal. He is authorised to accompany Rachael in public places, including on public transport, and both Virgin Australia and Rex airlines recognise Strike as an assistance animal able to travel on their flights. Rachael also receives NDIS funding for Strike’s training and maintenance. 

Rachael told the ABC that her faithful border collie has helped her reach unprecedented levels of independence since he came into her life a few years ago: ‘He’s allowed me the confidence to be able to go places by myself’.   

But Qantas does not recognise Strike as an assistance dog under its assistance animals policy. 

We argue that Qantas’s approach is arbitrary and unfair, and amounts to disability discrimination.  

The case has generated widespread media coverage, including on the ABC, the Guardian, Nine News online and 7 News online/AAP.  

The Federal Court case is underway, with our partners Maurice Blackburn leading the litigation. 

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