Scoot says 'no' to blind passenger

SINGAPORE - Blindness does not stop Mr Thomas Chan from taking the MRT train to work every day without help.

But when he booked an air ticket to Sydney with Scoot airlines for a Dec 19 flight last year, he was told at the check-in counter that he could not fly alone.

Despite a fellow passenger offering to be his carer, Mr Chan was not allowed to board.

He then booked a flight on Scoot's sister airline, Singapore Airlines (SIA), the following day and flew to Sydney to celebrate Christmas with his wife and son, who live there.

The IT executive, who was diagnosed with glaucoma at 16, flies at least twice a year and has never been rejected by an airline because of his blindness.

"I felt they were treating me very unfairly just because I'm visually handicapped," said the 34-year-old who lives in Ang Mo Kio.

He said he could not understand Scoot's decision as he does not need assistance with his meals or when using the toilet on flights.

"I need help only to board and disembark," he said.

"On board, I just need someone to tell me where are the safety exit and the nearest toilet."

Scoot gave him two options: Pick a later departure date and travel with a carer or get a refund.  Mr Chan eventually chose the latter.

His close friend and colleague, Miss Jasmine How, who was at the airport with him, called Scoot's customer service when he was turned away at the check-in counter.

The 32-year-old said they were told he could board the plane as long as they found someone willing to be in charge of him during the journey.

And they did.  A passenger who was travelling alone was willing to sign an agreement to be his carer.

No go

But it was still a no go.

Scoot's duty manager told Mr Chan that he was still not allowed to fly because the carer was not related to him.

Miss How said: "It was a very, very bad experience. Why deny him boarding when there was someone willing to take care of him?"

On Scoot's website, it is stated that if a passenger with special needs is unable to travel independently, an escort will be required as "Scoot does not have the systems, staff or facilities to assume responsibility for such assistance".

It is not mentioned if the carer has to be related to the passenger with special needs.

Scoot defines travelling independently as to "be able to board, deplane, (go to the) toilet, feed, move about the aircraft and communicate with the crew with respect to safety instructions unassisted".

Mr Chan did not indicate that he was a blind passenger travelling alone when he booked the tickets on Oct 1.

He said he forgot to do so because he has been travelling with SIA and they have his records.

But "to play it safe", Miss How had called Scoot's customer service to inform them three days later.

She said: "I asked if the staff are trained to take care of his needs and they replied 'no problem, our staff are trained, they know what to do'."

But Scoot said there was no phone call or any note in the booking of the special request in their reply to Mr Chan's feedback published in The Straits Times Forum on Feb 22.

When contacted, Scoot declined to comment further.

Mr Michael Tan, executive director at the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped, said he felt that blind passengers should be allowed to travel independently.

"If the blind passenger is mobile and capable of managing all his activities during his flight, then he should be allowed to board the plane."

The New Paper checked with low-cost carriers Tiger Airways and AirAsia on their assistance for blind passengers travelling alone.

A customer service agent from Tiger Airways said that for safety purposes, the passenger should be accompanied by a carer for flights from Singapore.

"We cannot guarantee that we'll be able to help because of our limited staff."

Help provided

AirAsia, on the other hand, said help will be provided, as long as the airline is informed of the special request.

An SIA spokesman said it is not mandatory for passengers with special needs to travel with a carer.

But a safety assistant is needed if the passenger is unable to evacuate independently in the event of an emergency.

"The passenger may seek help from other passengers as safety assistants if he is not travelling with his own relative or friend," the spokesman said.

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