Seat difficulties: Frequent flyer Jim Conway. Photo: James Brickwood
"If you are in a wheelchair and can't lift yourself out, don't attempt to fly with Jetstar."
That is the message renowned Australian musician Jim Conway has for disabled people who cannot independently lift themselves out of a wheelchair and into a plane seat.
Mr Conway and his wife Helen Martin were left feeling "frustrated" and "powerless", after he was unable to board a flight to Melbourne in April because the airline did not have measures in place to transfer him safely into his seat.
Under the Disability Discrimination Act, airlines were expected to provide reasonable accommodation to persons with a disability unless they can prove it would cause the airline "unjustifiable hardship".
But Mr Conway, who has multiple sclerosis, was told by Jetstar staff that he could not expect the same level of assistance from a low-budget carrier as a full-service carrier such as Qantas.
Disability discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes rejected the airline's defence.
"It's all very well to have a low-service business model but you can't have a low-service business model that breaks the law," Mr Innes said.
"I would have thought that a business like an airline that's carrying thousands of people a day would have difficulty proving 'unjustifiable hardship'.''
Mr Conway, who recently retired from a 40-year career, which included playing with The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, The Backsliders and Jim Conway's Big Wheel, said his disability had not stopped him flying.
"I've been in a wheelchair for 20 years, I've done about 20 flights a year and I've never been in a situation where I couldn't board an aircraft before because of my disability," he said.
The couple indicated to Jetstar that Mr Conway would require assistance when they booked tickets but airline staff at the check-in counter told them no hands-on assistance would be provided in keeping with health and safety regulations.
They were also told that, unlike Qantas and Virgin, the budget carrier did not use Eagle Lifts – electric passenger hoists – to transfer disabled customers into their seats and they would have to use Jetstar's approved transfer method of a "slide board", which acts as a bridge between the wheelchair and the plane seat.
Jetstar staff then advised Ms Martin that, under the airline's protocol, her only other option was to lift her husband, who weighs 80-90 kilograms, out of his wheelchair and into his plane seat by herself.
"I thought that was laughable and that they were clutching at straws. If they're not allowed to lift me, how can they expect my 58-year-old wife to lift me on her own?" Mr Conway said.
A Jetstar spokesman said the company's transfer method – the slide board and slide cloth – was appropriate and reasonable.
"We carry more than 40,000 passengers requiring specific assistance every year and offer a range of assistance to ensure customers are able to travel safely and comfortably," the spokesman said.
Jetstar refunded the couple's tickets and although they were re-booked on a later Qantas flight to Melbourne, they were left without a return flight home on the busy Anzac Day long weekend.