The regional airline Rex is seeking to ban intellectually disabled passengers from flying unaccompanied unless they can demonstrate an ability to understand safety procedures.
Rex has lodged an application with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission asking for an exemption from anti-discrimination laws, which would allow it to force some disabled people to buy a second ticket for a carer if they want to use the airline.
Wheelchair users who need help to get to the toilet would also need to buy a second ticket for a carer, Rex’s application shows.
The airline argues in its submission to the commission that its fleet of 33 Saab aircraft, which fly from Sydney to a range of regional destinations in Australia, carry only one flight attendant, which means the capacity to look after high-needs passengers is limited.
“Since the formation of Rex, three crew members have incurred injuries whilst lifting passengers,” the airline says.
It wants to compel some disabled passengers to bring their own “passenger facilitators”.
“To help with the cost of this requirement, Rex will provide the lowest fare applicable to the flight, regardless of availability of that fare, for the companion.”
But the federal parliamentary secretary for disabilities and children’s services, Bill Shorten, opposes the application.
“If they want carers to fly with people, then give them a free ticket,” he said.
“I just think that everywhere people with disabilities are being treated as second-class citizens.”
Mr Shorten and the commission are jointly hosting a forum in Sydney today, to be attended by representatives of disability groups and the main airlines, in an attempt to mediate some of the problems confronted by disabled passengers.
The budget airline Virgin Blue announced a new policy in 2006 demanding that wheelchair users pay for an accompanying carer. After an uproar, the carrier partially backed down, insisting only that wheelchair users weighing more than 130 kilograms would need to buy a second ticket.
Virgin Blue is still engaged in litigation over that decision.
The director of the Disability Council of NSW, Dougie Herd, told the human rights commission that Rex had no justification for its move. “The airline has a monopoly on 31 routes,” Mr Herd, who is quadriplegic, said in a written submission. “It can and does carry passengers, like me, who require assistance including varying degrees of lifting. The assistance I (and others) rely on can be provided in ways (and using procedures) that do not breach Occupational Health and Safety policies, regulations or laws.”
Mr Herd also referred to a recent shareholder statement in which Rex reported a 50 per cent increase in profits.
Mr Shorten said Qantas was “doing the right thing”, but there were other examples that were making flight more difficult for the disabled – particularly for the intellectually disabled.
“They’re almost introducing a fit-to-fly standard,” he said of the Rex submission.