Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Flying Blind: What Blind and other Disabled Travelers Need to Know About Their Rights to Fly

The following account is a true story.  The names of persons and places have been changed to protect the persons and entities involved.  The purpose of this post is not to pin blame on anyone or any entity but rather, to open our collective eyes to the fact that PWDs are well entitled to travel on their own, and that they have rights, too, like their able-bodied counterparts.  If you have blind/PWD friends or acquaintances, feel free to pass this on to them.

PROLOGUE:  Anne (not her real name) is a blind masseuse based in Manila.  When a family member back home in the province down south got sick, she decided to fly immediately and tend to the emergency.  She booked her flights in person so the ticketing company knew beforehand that she is a blind PWD.    Securing her tickets, she felt assured that there would be no hitches. Flying home to the province went smoothly.  But just when she was lining up to check-in on her return flight back to Manila, an airport personnel told her that she cannot board the plane.   The reasons given?  She is a blind person, a woman at that, and she's traveling alone.  No amount of cajoling or pleading moved the airline staff to let her board her plane.

To compound the problem, an earthquake struck the province shortly and prevented her from booking another flight on a different airline at the soonest time possible.  Her return to Manila was further delayed, and consequently, she lost her job.

FLYING BLIND.  Before I had friends who were blind and had other disabilities, I was nearly clueless about what are PWDs entitled to when it comes to moving around in public transport.  The closest I got to having a clue was many years ago when I had a fracture that required having my right leg immobilized in a cast and walking in crutches.  Those were the olden days; I remembered being charged double by some taxi drivers; that is, if they even gave me the time of day.  I can also recall standing inside the bus with only the driver and conductor sympathetic to my plight (it was costly to keep riding cabs to work and back; besides, not a lot of cabbies wanted to take me in anyway).

In the present day, I know of blind friends and acquaintances who regularly go home via trains, jeepneys and buses.  Heck, I even hear of some commuting all the way to Mountain Province by themselves.  Sometimes, I guess it still shocks some people (Can they really do that?  Isn't it dangerous?  Why can't somebody who can see accompany them?).  You can imagine the looks I get when I tell jeepney drivers that a friend who just boarded his jeepney is blind so can he please drop him off at the designated LRT stop.  But it's the modern times and being disabled does not necessarily mean being at the mercy of someone without a disability to get around.   It's 2017 and these things do not happen anymore, right?  Well, it did happen to Anne. Clearly, we need to open our eyes (no pun intended) to what our PWD friends are entitled to when traveling by air.

Reaching out to the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), I was promptly given this information I would like to share so what happened to Anne will not be repeated in the future.  

First, who is a PWD?
According to CAB Policy Resolution No. 41, item 2.4, a PWD "include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others, recognized as such by, and registered with, the National Council on Disability Affairs of the government local unit where they reside."

Does the guideline apply to domestic flights booked on the internet or via mobile?  
Section III of the same policy resolution states: "These Guidelines shall be applicable in all domestic flights booked via the airline's official website or mobile application, through the use of internet or by any other means of purchase by Senior Citizens and Persons with Disability, or their authorized representative, for the exclusive use of such Senior Citizen or Person with Disability."

How can a PWD book his/her domestic flight?
According to Section IV of the policy resolution: "4.2  The PWD or his/her authorized representative may book a ticket for domestic air travel through the web or mobile application and input the guest details of the PWD including the ID number indicated in the identification card or "PWD Card" issued by the city or municipal mayor or the barangay captain of the place where the PWD resides"  (These documents also form the basis for giving the passenger a 20% discount on regular fares accorded to both PWDs and senior citizens).

What does the PWD need to do prior to boarding?
Item 4.8 of Section IV under the heading "Procedure" states that: "For purposes of check-in at the the check-in counter, the passenger who is a PWD shall present himself before the check-in counter for verification and shall present the identification card or "PWD Card" issued by the city or municipal mayor or the barangay captain of the place where the person with disability resides, and any one of the following: The Philippine passport of the PWD concerned; or Any government-issued identification cards recognized in the usual course of business (e.g. SSS, GSIS ID, PRC card, postal ID, driver's license, Office ID, and the like)

When can an airline refuse to board a PWD?
Item 4.9 of the same section states: "A senior citizen, or PWD holding a confirmed ticket and has presented the required identification at the check-in counter shall be issued a boarding pass or its equivalent and be given the right to board the aircraft for the purpose of the flight, in accordance with the provisions of the Air Passenger Bill of Rights.  Notwithstanding the aforementioned, the airline should not refuse to transport a PWD except for passenger and aircraft safety requirements."

Next, I sent an email to the top local airlines.  Only one, Philippines AirAsia, got back to me.  My next set of queries are downright simple:   First, can a blind person travel alone, or should he/she have a companion for the trip?  Mr. Digno Bernardino of Philippines AirAsia Corporate Quality Department, answered that while it is preferable to bring some company, the blind PWD can travel alone as long as he/she can perform the following without assistance:
- unfasten his/her seat belt, support him/herself and reach for an emergency exit unaided;
- retrieve and fit a life jacket;
- don an oxygen mask without assistance;
- able to understand the safety briefing and any advice or instructions given by the crew;
- use the toilet;
- feed him/herself;
- administer his/her own medicines and medical procedures.

Mr. Bernardo further advises that while the PWD can book his/her own flight through the website or in person, or through a travel agency, he/she should take full account of necessary requirements such as a medical certificate.  If the PWD is traveling with a companion, he recommends that they pre-book their seats to ensure they are seated together.  Lastly, what should every PWD remember to bring to the airport?   Medical record/certificate, PWD ID are required prior to check-in.  This is to ensure that the airline staff are informed beforehand.

EPILOGUE.   Through the intercession of the airline with whom she originally booked her flights, Anne was able to get her job back as a masseuse.  The experience has somehow made her a bit wary of flying again though she knows there's no other quicker option to travel back home.   However, it's a lesson for her, for the airline, and for the rest of us.  Could the airport personnel who denied her from flying just be concerned about her, a blind person traveling alone by herself?    Is it just a cultural thing to allow blind men to travel on their own but not women?   Are we still in the dark on how to accord blind/visually-impaired people their rights to mobility?  On the other hand, could it just be a deep-seated concern for their safety?   Thoughts to ponder as we see more and more blind PWDs move on their own, reclaiming their freedom and independence to wander.

To get a copy of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) Policy Resolution No. 41(BM 04A-07-13-2017), please click this link.


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