I saw stewardess assault a woman in a wheelchair

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The Independent Online

I returned to London last week from a two-week trip to Cape Town. I was dreading the return flight, because the outward journey with KLM had been so chaotic. Would things be just as bad? They were to prove far worse, culminating in an assault on a disabled woman by a KLM stewardess.

I returned to London last week from a two-week trip to Cape Town. I was dreading the return flight, because the outward journey with KLM had been so chaotic. Would things be just as bad? They were to prove far worse, culminating in an assault on a disabled woman by a KLM stewardess.

My problems began just before Christmas. I checked in at Heathrow for a flight to Amsterdam which the airline sells as the connection for its Cape Town service. It was then announced that the flight would leave an hour late, and as KLM had given me only 50 minutes' turnaround time, this spelt disaster. Indeed, when the plane eventually took off, a stewardess confirmed that the Cape Town flight would not wait for me - or the other 26 passengers on my flight who were going to South Africa. In Amsterdam we were met by a KLM steward who told us we would have to stay a night in the city and leave next day.

I asked the steward how he had managed to arrange so many rooms at such short notice and he told me we had been booked into the hotel (it proved to be a motorway motel some 15 miles from Amsterdam) even before we had left London. It also transpired that our Cape Town flight had been heavily oversold. Maybe it was just a fortunate coincidence for KLM that our late arrival solved its overbooking problem; but if staff knew in London, and on the flight, that we would be spending the night in the Netherlands, surely everyone could have been informed.

After a long wait, a supervisor arrived to take our growing list of questions. She offered no apologies, was rude to the stranded passengers and dispensed such gems as: "Why are you standing here? Just go. We've done all we need to do." This from the airline that boasts that you'll notice "the care and attention" of check-in staff.

Back at the airport the next night I was offered almost £250 cash to give up my seat, as the flight was again heavily over-subscribed. I declined. I had left London on a Thursday afternoon and been scheduled to arrive in Cape Town early Friday morning. I finally got there on the Saturday. It would have been quicker to fly to Australia - and half-way back again.

But it was on the way home, while waiting at Schipol airport in Amsterdam to catch a service for London, that the most disturbing event occurred.

I held back as most of the passengers boarded the plane. Left sitting at the gate near me was a disabled passenger, Ebun Sonuga, 57, a former nurse, from north London. I watched as she was approached by a female member of the ground staff who curtly informed her that she would have to get out of her wheelchair and walk on to the plane. The KLM woman explained that she was pregnant and couldn't risk pushing someone in a wheelchair.

Mrs Sonuga insisted that she was not able to walk that far.

The stewardess, who was now losing her temper, then told Mrs Sonuga that she had too many items of hand luggage and snatched a box out of her hands. Then she grabbed a black plastic bag containing a bottle of water and various other possessions of Mrs Sonuga's and struck her around the head with it.

Despite Mrs Sonuga calling out that she had been attacked, nobody from KLM went to her assistance. I asked the airport security to help but they refused.

Mrs Sonuga said: "I fly to Lagos every six weeks with KLM, usually business class - I hold one of their frequent-flier cards.

"In Amsterdam this woman wanted to take my box away from me, but I didn't want to hand it over because it contained things I need for my medical problems. She told me that I had to walk on to the plane but I can't walk very well, not since I suffered my stroke three years ago - that's why I always book a wheelchair. I told her to leave me there and then, suddenly, she hit me."

Hugo Bass, the head of communications for KLM, interviewed the stewardess involved, and then suggested that Mrs Sonuga might have provoked the incident. He said the stewardess claimed that Mrs Sonuga was abusive and in response she had "dropped" the bag on her.

Mr Bass has promised that KLM's investigation will continue. Mrs Sonuga has been sent flowers and has received a verbal apology.

However, even if one accepts that KLM is trying to "see both sides of the story" and genuinely believes Mrs Sonuga to be in the wrong, can there ever be an excuse for hitting a disabled stroke victim sitting in wheelchair?

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