Heeru Chandanani, 25, employed with I.B.M., relates the experience of dealing with the hide-bound and archaic attitude of Air Sahara officials, in the course of taking a routine flight.
“My flight was to leave [from Pune to Bangalore] at 10:20 am. However, since it kept getting delayed, I had been calling the office several times to check on the time of departure. (The flight, Flight number: S2-6804, was ultimately delayed by five hours and finally left at 3:20 pm.). I told the officials that I could not take another flight to Mumbai and then from Mumbai to Bangalore because I was blind. They did not say anything about having an escort [at that point].
“I reached the airport at 2 pm, and my dad and uncle then went to ask Air Sahara officials for assistance for me. At this point, two officials -- Mr. Sudhir Tiwari and Ms. Meenakshi -- told them that they could not let me fly without an escort. No amount of convincing by my dad helped. They said they had rules to support their assertion.
“Then, in desperation, my dad asked me to talk to them. I tried explaining that I could travel alone, but they refused to listen. They said they absolutely could not let me travel -- and they left me hanging in mid-air, with hours to go for my flight.
“I could only stand there helplessly. However, I got lucky as a helpful gentleman came forward to offer his services as my escort. Then the two Air Sahara officials made him sign two forms saying he would be responsible if anything happened to me.
“Meanwhile, Mr. Tiwari and Ms. Meenakshi kept dodging us when we said that we wanted to see a copy of the rules; they did not show us the rules.
“Then they asked my dad about who was picking me up. I really don't understand this -- a gentleman had already signed that he was responsible for me but, in spite of that, they continued to [harass us with] unnecessarily details. I said that my grandmother was coming to pick me up even though I would be taking a pre-paid cab. In Bangalore, I walked out with my escort and they did not stop me.
“I came home and contacted the Bangalore Station Manager, Rajat Kumar, and told him the harrowing story. He apologised and said he could not understand why such an incident happened. He asked me to send him a mail and that he would check with the Station Manager in Pune. (The Station Manager at Bangalore can be contacted at: (080) 25232143.)
“The Air Sahara staff in Pune obviously didn't know anything [about how to deal with visually impaired passengers] and tortured me psychologically. If that gentleman had not come forward to act as my escort, I would still be in Pune [pleading in vain with unaware and insensitive airline staff].
“I have had no such experience when travelling to other cities on Sahara.”
Editor’s note: On the listserve that featured Heeru Chandanani’s experience, we came across several responses to this issue.
Regarding the regulation in question, Col. P. Kapoor of ‘Volunteers for the Blind’ writes: “I have consulted with two persons who specialise in Air Traffic Regulations, with the Department of Civil Aviation; with one person from Air India and one person with the Airport Authority. The regulation is contained in the Passenger Services Resolutions Manual, Section 188.8.131.52 of the I.A.T.A., which is an international body. The implication of this section is that a blind passenger is treated at par with persons on a stretcher or with severe mobility impairment. The airline has the discretion to allow or disallow a blind passenger when travelling without an escort. The interpretation could be made either way and the passenger is at the mercy of the commercial staff on the spot.”
“My personal response to this regulation is that it is unfair to equate the mobility of a person on a stretcher with that of a person with disability. For example, a pregnant woman or an elderly man may have greater restrictions on their mobility than a blind person. When the airline is ready to accept the pregnant woman or the old man with suitable instructions to the cabin crew, it should have no problems issuing the same for a blind person.”
Dipendar Manocha writes: “[I know of an instance when Air Sahara] did not take one passenger from Nepal on board because he was blind. The matter was reported in the General Assembly of the World Blind Union and the matter has been taken up at the I.A.T.A. office… [A] similar thing has been experienced at Delhi airport on Thai airline too.
Geetha Shamanna writes: “I have flown Indian Airlines several times and have never encountered this problem. I fervently hope that these airlines do not scrap the tradition of providing support to blind people travelling alone.”
“Jet Airways has been the best in my experience too. The only time I flew this airlines was during a company-sponsored vacation. Since I had my colleagues with me, I did not ask Jet for assistance. However, once one of their staff learned about my being on board, they came over and asked if I needed any assistance. They were very courteous, even though I had not approached them for assistance.”
Kiran Kaja writes: “Although I faced a similar problem at Chennai airport with Indian Airlines’ staff while going to Singapore, the Duty Manager that day was smart enough to consult his superiors and act sensitively, according to the rules. It appears Sahara has not trained its staff to handle passengers with special needs. I feel that Jet Airways provides the best services for blind passengers. Indian Airlines has a habit of leaving its blind passengers in the waiting hall after check-in.”
(Source: The accessindia listserve. Heeru Chandanani’s mail was posted on January 11, 2005; Col Kapoor’s response was posted on February 22, 2005. Responses by Dipendar Manocha, Geetha Shamanna and Kiran Kaja were posted on January 11, 2005. The views expressed in the article are those of the individual writers, and not of BEYOND THE I magazine.)g