Qantas is holding firm on its decision to bar an acclaimed author's assistance dog from a domestic flight, citing federal aviation regulations.
But award-winning poet Fiona Wright, who was due to attend the NT Writers' Festival this weekend, has labelled the decision "deeply upsetting" and "out and out discrimination". Wright is perhaps best known for her book Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger.
"[My dog] is an assistance dog, it's just that their policy doesn't recognise the particular organisation that I'm working with," she said. "She's not an emotional support dog. She's far more qualified than that. In order to start working with mindDog, I needed a letter from my GP, from my psychiatrist... there was a six week in-home assessment before we got started."
MindDog is a Sydney-based not-for-profit organisation that helps to "procure, train and accredit psychiatric assistance dogs" for people in need.
"The onus shouldn't be on the disabled person to prove their disability and prove their disability aid is accessible," said Ms Wright. "I can no longer do my job because I can't get on that plane. I've wanted to go to Alice Springs for a really long time. It's a wonderful festival and a great program I wanted to be a part of."
Ms Wright's disability relates to mental health conditions, and MindDog is a Sydney-based not-for-profit organisation that helps to "procure, train and accredit psychiatric assistance dogs" for people in need.
Ms Wright said Qantas was the only airline that could take her straight from Sydney to Alice Springs and she would be taking the matter to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
"The alternative involves a five-hour bus trip from Uluru to Alice, or a four-hour stopover in Adelaide," she said. "So it takes the travel from three hours to eight-and-a-half in either direction."
A Qantas spokesman said he could understand why Ms Wright was disappointed.
"We've been working with her for several weeks to explain Qantas's requirements," he said. "We need to ensure that the dog is trained appropriately to travel inside the cabin.
"Qantas is bound by federal legislation, including [Civil Aviation Safety Authority] regulations, to ensure all service dogs travelling in the cabin meet the required standards.
"Unfortunately in this case, on the information provided, Qantas could not be satisfied that the mindDog training provided met the ... [required] standards. Qantas has successfully worked with dozens of other training providers to ensure their standards met Qantas' obligations."
Ms Wright claims other airlines - such as Virgin Australia, which has been contacted for comment - allow passengers to travel with mindDog-trained canines.
"This affects a lot more people than just me," Ms Wright said. "There are a lot of people that mindDog work with that live in regional Australia and don't have any other options other than Qantas. That's why I'm making a fuss."
Aviation in Australia is highly regulated, with much tighter restrictions on what kinds of animals can travel domestically compared to countries like the United States.
Sally Bothroyd, the executive director of the NT Writers' Centre, said she was disappointed in Qantas' decision.
"We believe Fiona issued ample paperwork to support her application," she said. "We would like to add that it was difficult to receive a prompt response or easy follow-up with Qantas, resulting in an unnecessarily protracted process."
- SMH/The Age