In this age of perpetual “War on Terror,” we have gotten somewhat accustomed to “disrobing” ourselves at airports. Taking off our watches, necklaces, belts or sometimes even shoes, has become routine when we go through security gates.
But how would you feel if you were taken aside and questioned or even denied entry into an aircraft, on grounds that your leg or lungs could pose a security threat?
This is what it feels like to some disabled travelers who regard wheelchairs as their legs and ventilators as their lungs. While no hard numbers exist, anecdotal evidence abounds on the many inconveniences wheelchair-using passengers have had to encounter when flying. The lack of specific regulations and insufficient technical knowledge among airline staff only contribute to the problem.
Motoko Yamaguchi from Ibaraki Prefecture couldn’t believe her eyes when in November, at Haneda Airport, her two severely disabled sons were directly told that they couldn’t board the airplane.
Before participating in a group tour to Okinawa for the disabled, organized by a local daily newspaper, Yamaguchi says she had provided all the requested information about her sons’ health, as well as information about their medical devices, to the Japan Airlines’ Priority Guest Services in advance, including a letter from their doctor. The list of devices, which was then approved by JAL, included ventilators. Her sons, Kodai and Takahiro, who both suffer from a progressive muscular disease, rely on the ventilators to assist their breathing, so she expected it would be no problem for the family to carry the devices onto the aircraft.
But when they got to the airport, airline staff told the family that they couldn’t take on board the batteries for the ventilators “for security reasons.” It took an angry and lengthy protest, before the family finally got the OK to take the batteries.
Yamaguchi still has a hard time hiding her anger, though. This was the second time her sons have been unfairly treated at the airport. The same issue about the batteries nearly ruined the family’s trip to Hawaii the year before — with the sons clearing security checks only 12 minutes before take-off.
“They spent more than 40 minutes staring at the battery, trying to figure out what it was made of,” Takahiro, 22, wrote later about the second incident, using the only finger he could manipulate to type out the message. “What was worse, they took (our) medical equipment, on which our lives hinge, took it to pieces and spread it out on the floor. If they had broken the equipment, we could have died inside the plane.”
JAL spokesman Soichi Yatsugi said that Yamaguchi’s experience resulted from poor communication among the airline’s staff, acknowledging the “great discomfort” it caused to the family and saying the company has since taken steps to prevent the reoccurrence of such incidents. Yatsugi did point out, however, that special-needs passengers who don’t consult with the airline beforehand could experience trouble at the airport, because the airline must comply with security rules set forth by the International Air Transport Association, a global airline industry trade group.
The Yamaguchis’ case is part of a larger issue over rights of disabled people to travel, says Koji Onoue, secretary general of DPI-Japan, a confederation of groups of disabled people and the Japan chapter of the 120-plus-member Disabled People’s International group based in Canada. He says DPI-Japan is concerned about the effects of severe restrictions on air travel for disabled people, some of which were put in place following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
“The momentum for a barrier-free (transport system) has grown in recent years, and many train stations today are equipped with elevators,” Onoue said.
“Compared to that, the remaining hurdles for air travel are striking. We started hearing from more people complaining about difficulty flying about five years ago.”
In fact, in June, when DPI-Japan hosted its annual convention in Nagoya, two of the convention attendees from Hokkaido experienced similar problems in dealing with an airline, with one of them being turned away at Chitose Airport in Sapporo, said Masaki Nishimura, another DPI official who heads its Hokkaido branch. The participant was told the “gas spring” of his wheelchair — which uses compressed air to allow the chair to recline — was categorized as an “explosive,” Nishimura said.
The other participant, Nishimura said, was dumbfounded, because, while on his way over to Nagoya the airline he flew with allowed him to use his own electric chair until right before boarding, on his return flight to Hokkaido, different officials from the same airline refused to take him in on the grounds that the same electric wheelchair’s battery could “catch fire.” The passenger was eventually allowed to board the plane, Nishimura said, though it still caused inconvenience.
Masayoshi Imanishi, another DPI member and a barrier-free design consultant for airports and other public facilities, explains airlines are concerned that electromagnetic waves emitted by ventilator batteries could interfere with the aircraft’s radio communication system, and that gas springs and small lithium batteries for electric wheelchairs could explode during in-flight air-pressure fluctuations.
The problem lies behind a lack of research on the actual danger posed by medical devices during flights, Imanishi argues, noting that the reaction of staff varies widely from carrier to carrier because they are regulated not by law or government regulations but by their own internal rules.
Imanishi also questions the scientific grounds for many of the restrictions imposed in the name of “security” or “safety.”
“Gas springs are so commonly used in an aircraft — even on the doors to overhead cabins,” he said.
S o what can be done? Mizusa Ono, an official at the Civil Aviation Bureau of the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, said he is aware of the complaints, but reiterated that there are no clear rules on what kind of medical devices are allowed onto an aircraft. However, the mistreatment of passengers who contact airlines in advance, go through all the necessary procedures and receive an OK from the airline — like the Yamaguchi family did twice — “must be avoided at all means,” he said.
Ironically, despite the fact that the transport ministry is planning to submit a Kotsu Kihon Ho (the basic transport law) bill to the Diet next year, which would incorporate the idea of Ido-ken (the right to mobility) for the first time, it has so far done little to improve disabled people’s access to air transport. More could be done — such as demanding airlines pay better attention to special-needs travelers — if only more people would speak up, said Ono, who says he has so far received through the ministry’s hotline only one complaint from a disabled passenger about denied access to flights.
For Yamaguchi, who says she has heard similar episodes from other disabled people, this is an issue that she cannot give up on easily. “When we finally negotiated our way into the flight, everyone involved — including those from the airline who had been so cold to us at first — started crying. They have kind hearts. What I want to tell them is, ‘If you have a kind heart, use it.’ “
The transport ministry accepts complaints and requests to the government on its hotline: (03) 5253-4150. DPI-Japan can be reached at: (03) 5282-3730; www.dpi-japan.org