The mother of a disabled teenager whose holiday was partly “wrecked” after easyJet lost his wheelchair on a flight to Paris has called on airlines to take more care when transporting essential mobility aids.
Gillian Cloke spent hours of the holiday phoning easyJet and seven local wheelchair hire companies after the airline lost her 17-year-old son Michael’s wheelchair and failed to provide her with a replacement.
The family were unable to locate a wheelchair until the fourth day of their holiday, and had to borrow wheelchairs at landmarks in Paris and forgo trips to the Louvre and Versailles.
“Michael’s been getting very tired,” Cloke, a book editor, told the Guardian. “It was just too tough trying to get to these places. We normally push him everywhere in the wheelchair until we get to our destination, so we can save his energy for walking around.”
Born with a congenital heart condition, hypoplastic left heart syndrome, Michael has a lack of oxygen in his blood which causes severe fatigue, his mother said. “When he walks or does anything arduous, his oxygen levels go down – imagine walking along a street carrying your granny on your back. That’s the extra amount of effort his heart has to make,” she said.
The family waited for hours at the airport after they arrived, hoping that his wheelchair would turn up, before realising it wasn’t coming. “It was hugely stressful, a real heart-sinking moment.”
Neither the airport nor the easyJet personnel at the airport could offer them any assistance with locating the missing chair or providing an alternative mobility aid, she said. “My husband said: ‘This is a disaster.’ You have to plan a lot when you’re taking a disabled person on holiday. We’d done our planning, but suddenly a crucial bit of kit was taken away from us and we didn’t know what to do.”
When Cloke reported the £400 wheelchair missing, she was asked by the airline to fill in forms describing the colour of her lost “bag” and its contents. “I was like, ‘It’s blue, it’s got wheels and it usually contains my son,’” she said.
The Kafkaesque system for reporting lost luggage, she added, was not set up for wheelchairs: “One size does not fit all.”
She received automated messages telling her she would be contacted and spoke to customer service representatives who were “lovely” and promised her that someone would be in touch. “And then, nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
She emailed the CEO of easyJet and her MP and started tweeting about the incident in “sheer desperation”, she said, tagging her tweets with the hashtag #rightsonflights.
Scammers then targeted her online, pretending to be easyJet, and telling her to pay a fee in order to be reunited with the wheelchair.
The story was then picked up by the BBC. “It took until Friday before anybody from easyJet even attempted to phone, and I think that was only because the BBC ran the story.” The airline has since apologised and has promised that it is doing all it can to locate the wheelchair.
But Cloke says it is not the first time such a “nightmarish” incident has happened to her family. “Three out of seven flights, something’s gone wrong with the wheelchair – and they weren’t always with easyJet. Another airline lost our wheelchair on the way back home, for example.”
She knows other disabled people who have had similar problems and wants to see a dedicated space for mobility aids on planes so that they can be stored with other carry-on luggage. “Airlines need to think creatively about this and have ways of adapting spaces so that we don’t have to trust these people who you see hurling cases into the body of the plane.”
She felt she had to speak out on behalf of Michael and other disabled passengers. “We don’t have the situation a lot of people have, where they are absolutely dependent on their mobility aids. Yet this has wrecked our holiday, at least partly.”
An easyJet spokesperson said: “We know how important it is for customers to feel confident that items like this will be well cared for when travelling with us, so we are investigating with our ground handling partners and with the airport’s special assistance provider.”
The airline said it had been in touch with the family “to ensure Michael’s wellbeing and see how we can assist them further”.
“We will also be offering a gesture of goodwill to apologise for their experience and the delay in reuniting Michael with his wheelchair.”