Sebenzile Mthembu had booked to board a flight from OR Tambo International to King Shaka International on February 24, but instead sat on her wheelchair that day and watched as her flight took off without her.
She was told the airline did not allow wheelchair users to fly unless they were accompanied by an able-bodied companion.
As an independent woman and a planning administrator by profession, 34-year-old Mthembu said she was used to doing things for herself and had never had a problem flying alone before.
She was scheduled to attend an event in Durban and had also planned to see her Durban-based doctor. But what excited her most was the opportunity to see her family.
“I had planned the trip for months and taking a flight meant that I was going to be home very quickly,” she said.
But her excitement was short-lived. She said she had booked her flight two weeks earlier and was made to fill in questionnaires for people with her disability.
“I later received an e-mail stating that my application was approved and that an assistant would be available at the airport to help me to board the plane,” she said.
However, on arriving on the plane, she was told by a Mango supervisor that the airline did not allow wheelchair users on their flights without an able-bodied companion. She said the woman asked how she would help herself in case of an emergency and in case she needed to use the toilet.
“I told her that I was capable of looking after myself. I was embarrassed and confused at the same time because, although it was my first time flying Mango, I had flown with SAA three times before and it was never a problem,” she said.
Mthembu said that although she had never used the toilet when flying before, she had indicated in the questionnaire that she was able to control her bladder.
“I cannot stand or walk, but I am able to move between seats. The only assistance I needed was to get into the plane; everything else I am capable of doing on my own,” she said.
Tlali Tlali, SAA spokesperson, said passengers who required assistance made prior application for factors such as the provision of an assistant to and from the aircraft.
He said SAA could only accommodate a limited number of passengers with mobility challenges per flight as informed by safety considerations.
“As a general rule, wheelchair passengers may fly without a travel companion. However, certain cases require special approval by the SAA medical department based on the condition of the passengers.”
Mango, however, has a policy different from SAA, its sister company.
Commercial general manager Pumla Luhabe said Mthembu’s matter was investigated by their guest services department.
She said SA Civil Aviation Authority (SA-CAA) safety regulations relating to quadriplegic passengers required such people to travel with their own fully-abled companions at their own cost.
Mthembu was made aware of the regulation during a conversation with medical department personnel, she said.
“However, it would appear she decided to arrive for her flight without the fully-abled assistant. Our airport staff were unfortunately obliged to observe the SACAA regulation and therefore precluded her from travelling on her own.”
Luhabe said Mthembu was refunded the cost of her flight as a token of goodwill.
Frustrated and heart-broken, Mthembu took a night bus to Durban so that she could make her doctor’s appointment.
“I feel that I was discriminated against because of my disability. They should not have accepted my booking in the first place. Not only did they inconvenience my travelling, but they were also extremely unprofessional. Even if they had told me I needed to be accompanied, I would have felt discriminated against for having to pay for a companion,” she said.
Mthembu reported the matter to the Quad-Para Association of South Africa (QASA).
QASA chief executive officer Ari Seirlis said they were concerned by the stance Mango took.
“No other airline in the world known to QASA has this practice of not allowing wheelchair users to fly on their own. This is clear discrimination.” QASA engaged Mango on a number of occasions to ask them to allow wheelchair users to fly independently.
“We have advised the Human Rights Commission and are using a Legal Resources Centre lawyer in a case against Mango,” said Seirlis.