ParalympicsGB athletes are being encouraged to boycott British Airways when flying to the Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer, after the airline allegedly forced a disabled passenger off a flight and broke her electric wheelchair.
Athena Stevens, who has cerebral palsy, is pursuing a compensation claim after she was ordered off a flight from London City airport to Glasgow last October.
She was told to leave after staff realised they would not be able to fit her electric wheelchair in the hold, despite being informed 72 hours in advance that she would be travelling with it.
To her horror, the pilot announced over the intercom that the flight had been delayed for two hours due to the difficulty in loading the chair, she said.
The 31-year-old American film-maker, who lives in London, told The Independent: “I was denied access to the flight due to my disability – cerebral palsy – which is against the law. I’m used to humiliating things happening but that was wrong.”
After being forced to disembark, Ms Stevens – who was not offered a refund, replacement flight or compensation – saw that the exterior of her chair had been damaged and the computer that controlled the motors and wheel movement was broken, leaving it “unsafe to drive”. It took three months for BA to process the refund, Ms Stevens said, but the airline has failed to replace her chair or offer her compensation.
The rental chair Ms Stevens is currently using is far less technically sophisticated than her original chair, and she is not able to use it on public transport. The cost of the rental chair, taxis and extra help in the home comes to around £1,500 per week, Ms Stevens said – and she has been left to foot the bill. “This isn’t a toy they broke, it’s my mobility. My entire life revolves around this wheelchair,” she said. “Neither London City Airport nor British Airways have followed EU regulation.”
BA flew Team GB and ParalympicsGB to the Beijing Games in 2008 and was an official Paralympic Games sponsor in 2012, but Ms Stevens is encouraging athletes to boycott BA. “There’s obviously a double standard that they can fly Team GB’s Paralympians and act like it’s acceptable for someone to go 100 days without any mobility.”
A complaint on Ms Stevens’ behalf to the Civil Aviation Authority, issued by Roberto Castiglioni, director of the aviation consulting service Reduced Mobility Rights, said: “Many people with special needs already have a difficult life. It’s basic human decency not to make it any harder than necessary. From my findings it would appear both British Airways and [London City Airport] have done everything in their power to make Ms Stevens’ life as hard as it possibly can be.” A spokesman for Disability Rights UK also said BA should “task the lawyers with compensating this lady”.
A spokeswoman for British Airways said: “We are working with the customer and London City airport to resolve the issue. However, as the matter is now in the hands of lawyers it would be inappropriate for us to comment further.”
A statement from London City airport said it was also working to resolve the issue but was unable to comment because the situation was being dealt with by lawyers.