A group of disabled Russians are going to sue the German airline Air Berlin for refusing to board people in wheelchairs. Once again, this case attracted public attention to the problems of disabled people in Europe. Fortunately, at present, it looks like no public place remains in Europe where there are physical barriers for the disabled. However, sometimes, it also seems that it’s easier to bring down physical barriers than to change people’s mindset. The attitude of some managers and workers in commercial concerns towards disabled people quite often turns out to be not very friendly. Air Berlin’s management often boasts that their company always tries to create the best conditions for disabled people. Unfortunately, the real situation is not always that idyllic.
Nadezhda Belkova, a disabled rights activist, said, “At least, the company might have refunded the money to the people that it refused to board beforehand, not several minutes before the plane took off. I can’t call such an attitude of a company to its clients as anything else than negligence. We’d gone through all the preflight preparations. We filed our first request in August, and, since then, we informed the company every week about new people who wanted to join us. We’d already gone through the customs check and settled in the plane, when they suddenly announced that they were delaying the takeoff for some reason. Then, they said that they could only take two people in wheelchairs; the other disabled people should leave the plane. It seemed to me that the flight crew just didn’t want to spend time on helping the disabled people to get on and off the plane”.
Now, Air Berlin is trying to defuse the scandal. They claimed that their company has a rule, dictated by safety considerations, that only two people in wheelchairs can ride on one flight. However, if this rule really exists, the company should’ve warned the Russian delegation about this beforehand, not after about a half of them (34 people, including six in wheelchairs) were already in the plane.
German lawyer Max Gutbrod, who works for the company Baker & McKenzie-CIS, said, “This case isn’t only a violation of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but it’s also a violation of the contract between the company and its clients. True, to a certain extent, a plane’s captain has the right to decide what is and what is not safe for the plane. Care for these disabled people might even have dictated the actions of the captain of this flight… probably, it would’ve been hard for him to evacuate them in the case of an emergency. However, the law common to the entire EU states that if disabled people are going anywhere by pane, they have to warn the air company about everything they might need in the flight within 48 hours before the flight. If the would-be passengers of the flight in question fulfilled this condition, they could sue the company, demanding that it should compensate them for this nuisance. If a treaty about transporting certain people was concluded, but the plane’s captain refuses to transport them without any particular reason, an alternative flight should be offered to them… probably, in business class”.
The German company offered an alternative flight only after this story appeared in a number of media sources. In the end, the Russian airline Aeroflot flew the delegation to Düsseldorf. The funniest… and, at the same time, the saddest… thing about this story is that the Russian delegation was going to Germany to take part in a conference devoted to the creation of better condition for disabled people in Europe. To get there, they had to wait at the airport for a whole day. Air Berlin didn’t even care to offer them any food or to take them to a hotel. Initially, the Russian delegation intended to return from Germany by Air Berlin and had already bought the return tickets. Now, Air Berlin’s officials suggest that two of the six Russians in wheelchairs could fly to Russia on one of their flights, two on another flight, and the other two by Aeroflot. By the way, Aeroflot rules don’t set any limitations concerning how many people in wheelchairs may fly on one flight.
10 October 2012
Voice of Russia World Service