In Nigeria, discriminatory policies, facility deficit make air travel nightmarish for the disabled. A plethora of laws exist to protect persons with disabilities in Nigeria, only that airline operators will not respect them in their dealings with special needs passengers. Gbenga Ogundare reports.

IF visually disabled Oluwakemi Odusanya had any foreboding about a hitch-free air travel enroute Abuja on Saturday, 19 December, 2020, it was certainly not about the embarrassment and trauma the journalist would eventually suffer in the custody of Dana Airline with whom she was scheduled to fly into Lagos.

The on-air personality at Unilag FM and Administrative Secretary for the Nigeria Association of the Blind (NAB) began to sense a looming trouble when her flight on Dana 9j356 was not announced like other flights at the scheduled 5:50 pm.

“19:00 came, no flight relating to Dana 9j356 was called. I was alarmed,’ she griped, ‘got to the counter, and the officer on duty, said we should be patient, that the operating aircraft had a technical issue and has been resolved.”

The announcement came at 8 pm though, but not from the usual caricature voices that call out through the loud speakers–urging passengers to proceed to board their flight. Instead, Odusanya told this newspaper, “the officer told everyone who was waiting for the flight to come together and then announced: ‘We are sorry, the Dana 9j356 flight to Lagos has been cancelled due to technical issues.’”

And so the trauma began for Odusanya and other passengers. “There was I,’ she groaned, ‘blind and helpless about my next move after being left stranded by Dana Airline.”

It was the first time Odusanya would be travelling by air afterall, so she wouldn’t have known that the Dana flight to Lagos scheduled for 11 am that Saturday actually departed Abuja at 7 pm, according to checks by this newspaper.

All of her entreaties to make Dana Airline provide her with an accommodation and safety while her flight was cancelled and rescheduled for the following day fell on deaf ears. “The Dana Air official didn’t budge, even when I explained to him that I had a frail health that will not allow me sleep outside in the cold as they wanted us the passengers to do.”

“He said there was nothing they could do. After so much banter with the officer at past 9pm after he contacted few persons, he said there will be flight to convey people to Port Harcourt, after which they could proceed to Lagos.”

But the shock and trauma was not about to end for blind Odusanya. Dana Airline was at it again on Sunday, December 20. “The Dana officer said he could not find our boarding pass that was handed to him the night before. At this moment, I felt pained; I cried at the height of insensitivity and nonchalant attitude displayed by the Dana officials.

“After over two hours of waiting, one of the officials told my aid to follow him to the duty manager to see if something could be done about it.

“On getting there, the lady told her that “Hope she is not a wheelchair user?’ My aid responded in the negative. The manager further pointed at my mobility cane, asking what about that? My aid flagged and said, NO!”

It wasn’t until after the Dana official ascertained Odusanya wasn’t a wheelchair user that she rescheduled her flight for a Dana 9j356 flight for Lagos departing Abuja at 3:35 pm on Sunday.

Again, Odusanya didn’t know the Dana 9j356 flight was originally meant to depart Abuja by 11 am, but was delayed as usual till 3:35 pm.

Part 19 of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Regulations frowns at that kind of institutional irresponsibility and insensitivity as displayed by Dana Air actually.

Section 19.6.1.1 states that, “for domestic flights, when an operating air carrier reasonably expects a flight to be delayed beyond its scheduled time of departure, it shall provide the passengers with reason(s) for the delay within 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time.”

The rules also stipulate the following reliefs for passengers in the event of a delayed flight:

“(i) after two hours, refreshments as specified in section 19.10.1 (i) and telephone calls, SMS and E-mails as specified in section 19.10.2 ;

(ii) beyond three (3) hours, Reimbursement as specified in Section 19.9.1(i); and

(iii) at a time beyond 10pm till 4am, or at a time when the airport is closed at the point of departure or final destination, the assistance specified in sections 19.10.1(iii) and 19.10.1(iv) (hotel accommodation and transport)…”

But Dana Air was not done with its violation of the Aviation Law and its vulnerable passengers for the night. A short while after Odusanya was left stranded and discarded without an offer of compensation and relief, another passenger with disability would suffer a more grievous abuse in the custody of Dana officials. Chike Okogwu, a passenger on wheelchair whose 7:20 pm flight from Abuja to Lagos was delayed till 9:05 pm without prior notice was stopped from boarding by a Dana Air official.

According to Okogwu, he was barred from boarding at the Abuja airport because a “new policy” forbids them from carrying people with wheelchair at night.

As a result, he missed a medical appointment to treat what he described as a ‘debilitating ulcer condition’.

“I got enraged by their nonchalance and insensitivity. And yes, damaged their counter,” he affirmed, insisting that he was provoked after being denied his rights.

Sharing a photo of his bleeding hand and blood on his boarding pass, Okogwu twitted: “It’s turning bloody here in Abuja Airport. If we die, we die. I say no to discrimination of persons with Disabilities in Nig…

“I met with all their conditions as displayed on their website please. Bought 2 Biz Class Tickets as you can see. Pls never allow anybody trample on your rights. I am only disabled by a messed up system but very highly exposed, cerebral & compassionate.” He wrote via Twitter.

A press statement issued by the airline a day after the incident also corroborated Okogwu’s claim.

“…When our Duty Manager noticed him in the midst of the upsurge of passengers, approached him and politely explained to him that as a matter of policy, comfort and safety of our guests, we do not carry Special Passengers at night…”

This newspaper scoured through the airline’s website though, but nowhere was such policy stated. Rather, the airline stated a commitment to offer assistance to the disabled.

Although Dana Airline likes to insist persons with reduced mobility like Odusanya and Okogwu are treated with respect by the organisation, the Centre for Citizens With Disabilities (CCD) thinks otherwise. According to the CCD Executive Director, David Anyaele: “With this new policy by Dana Airline, a new pattern of discrimination against citizens with disabilities has been announced in the aviation industry in Nigeria.”

Drilling through the airline’s press statement via a telephone conversation, Kingsley Ezenwa, Dana Corporate Communications Manager tried unsuccessfully to conceal the facts of human rights abuse Okogwu and other vulnerable passengers were made to suffer while trying to fly with the airline.

“There are a few airlines that will not carry persons with reduced mobility, but not Dana Air,” Ezenwa explained to this newspaper. “The only reason we won’t carry a passenger with reduced mobility is if he is not travelling with a companion. This is because the said passenger might require urgent attention on board while the crew is busy. So we expect his companion to attend to him pending when a member of the crew is free to do so.”

If Ezenwa’s troubleshooting is anything to go by, then Dana Airline did not have any cogent reason to stop Okogwu from making his trip last Sunday. Okogwu had a companion– both of them booked to fly with a first class ticket each on the night he was denied boarding.

Same for the lady on wheelchair who was denied access to board Dana Air 9J 353 on Sunday, 13 December, 2020 at the MM2 Lagos Airport. The woman had her sister with her as a guide in the course of the flight. Yet a Dana Air staff, in a video footage insisted she would not be boarded because she was on wheelchair and Dana Air does not have the facility to cater for her.

Section 19.4.2.of the NCAA regulations states that “Any other passengers denied boarding except in accordance with Section 19.4 of the regulation is considered to have been denied boarding involuntarily. Even if the passengers accept the denied boarding. Consequently, the carrier is obligated to pay if the passenger is involuntarily denied boarding …”

All that can ever go wrong with access regulations

Access has all along remained a teething problem for both the cripple and the blind seeking to travel by air in Nigeria. A vast majority of the airports are not accessible to this community actually.

And so in the absence of mobile wheelchair lifters to aid access to and from aircraft, the wheelchair-ridden traveller, for instance, will have to be heaved absolutely off his chair, and carried into the aircraft before being deposited into their seat.

This experience is not only embarrassing, but also dehumanising.

Recounting her worst embarrassing moments as a youth corps member in 2018, visually disabled Tomisin Adeyefa, now a broadcaster, recalled how Aero Contractors, another airline, stopped her from flying into Lagos enroute Sokoto because of her visual disability.

“I had already bought my ticket only to be told Aero Contractors couldn’t allow me in the aircraft because I had no companion travelling with me.”

“It became a heated argument and I remained implacable until the airline returned my money to me. I eventually left Sokoto via Arik Air.”

Apparently, Both Dana Airline and Aero Contractors breached section 14 of the Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2018 which provides that all airlines operating in Nigeria shall ensure the accessibility of their aircraft to persons with disabilities; make available presentable and functional wheelchair for the conveyance of persons with disabilities who need them to and from the airport; ensure that persons with disabilities are assisted to get on and off board in safety and reasonable comfort; and ensure that persons with disabilities are accorded priority while boarding and disembarking from the aircraft.

That’s not going to happen anytime soon, unfortunately. Except if the Federal Ministry of Aviation gives priority attention to implement section 14:2 of the Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2018. (The Nation)

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