An airline here has been ordered to pay €10,000 compensation to a quadriplegic passenger for refusing to allow him to travel business class on a transatlantic flight last year.
This follows Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) Adjudication Officer, Marian Duffy, finding that the airline discriminated against the passenger on the disability ground under the Equal Status Act when not allowing him to travel business class on the flight from Ireland to Washington DC in January 2019.
The airline refused the passenger - who also suffers from multiple sclerosis - the business class seat due to safety concerns connected with him using a special five-point harness for the seat.
The man requires the harness because of his disability as he cannot sit upright independently in an aircraft seat without support.
The maximum compensation allowed under the section of the Equal Status Act is €15,000 and awarding €10,000 compensation, Ms Duffy stated that “the prohibited conduct” by the airline “is at the higher end of the scale”.
The passenger is a member of a scientific steering committee of the Progressive MS Alliance which is an international collaborative research alliance aiming to develop a treatment for progressive multiple sclerosis and this involves him attending three meetings internationally annually.
In the past, the passenger has flown with the airline in question in business class to San Francisco in May 2016, to Washington in February 2017 and to Toronto in May 2018.
In relation to the planned flight for January 2019 to Washington DC, the man booked three return business seats as he required two personal assistants to assist with him during the trip.
The man had used a harness for his previous three business class flights with the airline but stated that the airline told him for his January 2019 flight that the policy had changed, and he could no longer use the harness in business class.
In her findings, Ms Duffy found that the airline “failed to do all that was reasonable to provide accommodation for the complainant in business class”.
Ms Duffy said that the business class booking was cancelled by the airline “less than two days before the complainant was due to travel which caused him considerable stress and anxiety”.
Ms Duffy stated that the passenger was then seated in an economy seat which had very little recline.
Ms Duffy further said that the passenger “found the long flight extremely difficult and uncomfortable because he could not be repositioned”.
The man told the WRC hearing that he found the journey distressing and was extremely sore because he was sitting in the one position for the duration of the flight and he was unable to work the following day and had to spend the day in bed recovering.
The passenger was also put in an economy seat on the return journey.
In her ruling, Ms Duffy has ordered the airline to put in place reasonable accommodation to enable the complainant to travel in business class when he next purchases business class tickets.
In its submission at the WRC, the airline denied that the passenger was discriminated against on the disability ground.
The airline said that it was not happy that the harness the complainant was using could safely interact with the business class seat and it could only be used by passengers travelling in the bulkhead seats.
An engineer with the airline, who works in the special needs area, said the company upgraded the seats in the business class to fully electric seats in 2016 and the special harness is not approved for use with these new seats.
He stated that if the electrical power to the seats was improperly isolated or reapplied it could cause injury to the passenger if there was an inadvertent movement.
The engineer also said that the seat manufacturer did not recommend using the harness with their seats and the Federal Aviation Authority in the US had not approved the harness.
The engineer said after having considered the safety issues and the extra workload on the cabin crew, he could not recommend the use of the harness in business class seats and made a report and instructed that the harness should not be used.
The engineer accepted that, despite giving an instruction that the harness was not to be used in business class seats, the complainant travelled on two return long haul flights during 2017 and 2018 with the harness. He said that his approval was not sought for these flights.
The engineer said that the complainant was refused permission to travel in business class in 2019 because of these safety concerns.
The engineer said that the passenger was offered a seat at the bulkhead in economy class because it is unsafe to put the harness straps around a seat with a monitor at the back in business class because it could cause an electrical problem for the aircraft.