x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Assistance for UAE special needs air passengers ‘shouldn’t come at a cost’

Take our poll: Travelling with a passenger with special needs is difficult enough, parents say, without having to pay extra fees for additional services.

Special needs passengers have had mixed experiences travelling to or from the UAE.

Saba Ahmed usually has no problem when she is at Dubai International Airport with her 21-year-old son, Ahrar, who received a diagnosis of cerebral ataxia when he was two years old.

“The porter meets us with the wheelchair at the gate of the plane and we don’t face any problems,” she said. “Sometimes there is just a delay in getting the wheelchair.”

For others, the experience does not go as smoothly. Sajitha Gopal, whose daughter has cerebral palsy, often travels from Dubai to India.

Mrs Gopal always requests special services when booking tickets, but the service costs about Dh250.

“Now that she’s all grown up we’ve started asking for it because it’s become difficult to carry her,” Mrs Gopal said. “And they don’t allow us to take our own wheelchair onto the plane, even though it’s collapsible. It creates a lot of hassle when I’m travelling alone.”

When Mrs Gopal asked the airline about the fees, she was told the charges were made by Dnata, the subcontractor that provides the service.

“This is a service that should be considered a human right,” Mrs Gopal said. “We’re asking for needed help, for assistance and this shouldn’t come at a cost.”

Dnata said they have no direct link with customers. They said ground services are provided to the airlines for a fee and it is up to the airlines whether or not to pass along the charges.

“Dnata is contracted to provide special handling services to 140-plus airlines operating into and out of Dubai International Airport,” said Jon Conway, the divisional senior vice president at Dnata. “Airlines in turn offer this service to their passengers.”

Passengers should check with the airlines for specific information about booking assistance services and whether fees will be imposed, he said. For example, wheelchairs are not provided without a handler at Dubai airport.

“All our bookings are facilitated by the provision of a wheelchair or electric golf cart and dedicated staff for persons with reduced mobility,” Mr Conway said.

“Passengers are met at the check-in desk or passenger drop-off areas, escorted through immigration and conveyed to one of Dnata’s special handling lounges with their accompanying passenger.”

Abu Dhabi International airport works similarly where Abu Dhabi Airport Services (Adas) is the subcontractor.

Saalim Abdul Aziz Solkar, passenger service supervisor, said that some airlines charge passengers to reduce the number of requests.

“Some airlines believe that if there is no charge, many of their passengers will be requesting a wheelchair,” Mr Solkar said. “So they feel that charging will reduce the load.”

Adas does provide a courtesy service to passengers who make an emergency request at the check-in counter, Mr Solkar said.

Both the United States and European Union regulations prohibit charging passengers for special needs services.

The EU also requires that any third-party assistance must be financed in such a way as to divide the costs equally among all passengers.

“Unfortunately, people here don’t help out on their own,” Mrs Ahmed said. “So if regulations are needed, so let it be. It will be of great service to the elderly and people like us who need them.”

mismail@thenational.ae