Virgin Australia Left Me Behind and Didn’t Seem to Care

Our CEO had a very frustrating experience with Virgin Australia on International Day of People with Disability. Read her opinion piece and share if you don’t want this to happen to others who are blind or vision impaired in the future.

Virgin Australia Left Me Behind and Didn’t Seem to Care

3 December was International Day of People with Disability, yet Virgin Australia left me stranded and devastated at Australia’s largest airport. This is meant to be a day when we celebrate the progress we have made towards equal rights and improved attitudes towards people with disability throughout the world. I’ve often reflected that I wish we didn’t need a day on the calendar to recognise people with disability, we should be treated equally and have the opportunity to contribute to society each and every day, just like nondisabled people.

Nevertheless, I appreciate that days like these are important reminders for our society to keep working with us to increase our visibility and secure our inclusion. Today however, I have never felt less welcome or less valued as a Virgin Australia customer who is totally blind.

I was in Sydney this weekend to celebrate with my NSW friends and colleagues, the consolidation of Blind Citizens NSW with Blind Citizens Australia, the organisation of which I am the CEO. I spent time with internationally recognised leaders who are blind, like former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes and Professor Ron McCallum AO who has chaired the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I worked with my colleagues and friends who are Directors and staff of Blind Citizens Australia to progress issues of significance to people who are blind or vision impaired across Australia. In short, I enjoyed a very productive weekend which left me feeling that we are truly making good progress towards “changing what it means to be blind” in this country.

It was with this in mind (along with excitement at the prospect of seeing my husband and two children in a couple of hours),  that I sat in the Virgin Australia lounge to await my direct flight to Hobart where I live. I had advised Virgin Australia staff at the time of booking that I would require assistance from the lounge to the gate and then on to the aircraft, details which I reconfirmed (as I always do), with staff at the Virgin Australia lounge when I arrived. I requested to be boarded last due to being in an aisle seat, so that other passengers would not need to climb over me. So I was not concerned when boarding was called and nobody immediately came to collect me. When a staff member did finally show up (ten minutes before the flight was due to depart), it was to inform me that the meet and assist staff had been too busy to come for me and given that the flight had now closed, it was too late for me to board it.

After taking a breath and counting to ten, I informed him that this situation was totally unacceptable and that I expected an upgrade and a refund of my fare. He assured me that a supervisor would come to speak with me about the situation. So I waited, … and waited, for over half an hour and still nobody came to speak with me. By this time, my frustration was mounting and I was starting to panic, partly because I felt trapped given I had no obvious way of seeking assistance.

I eventually attracted the attention of a very helpful fellow passenger who assisted me to locate the service desk. The staff member I spoke to was unaware of the issue but very surprised by it. She took me to speak to the staff member who I had originally been dealing with. She asked him to clarify what had happened. It was obvious that he was unable to explain and was becoming flustered. I interjected and told him that it was quite clear to me that he himself had forgotten to alert the meet and assist staff and then tried to use them as scapegoats rather than owning his mistake. He agreed that this was what had occurred and said he would again request that his supervisor speak to me. The staff member urged him to do so, made me a cup of tea because she could see how upset I was, told me not to worry and left me to wait once again.

Another 15 minutes went by and I was becoming more and more agitated, given I still had no idea which flight I was to be put on. In desperation I contacted the Virgin Australia call centre, explained the issue and asked them to assist. Within minutes the supervisor materialised. I immediately asked him why he had not seen fit to prioritise my issues. He said he had been very busy and that he had walked past while I was on the phone, so didn’t want to interrupt. I told him that I would have thought an issue of this magnitude warranted an interruption.

He then informed me that the next direct flight to Hobart was at 2:00PM. I said that I had plans for the day which had been disrupted already, so I asked about indirect flights. He said he hadn’t considered those because he thought the connections would be too difficult for a person who is blind. This is possibly understandable, assuming he’s never met a blind traveller before. Though given he is a supervisor working at Australia’s largest airport, I think that is a stretch to say the least. Either way, I pointed out that had I been any other passenger, he would have consulted with me rather than making the assumption that I would have nothing more important to do with my day than sit in an airport lounge.

He finally got me on a Hobart flight via Melbourne. As I write this, I am on the Hobart leg and will likely make it home by 4:00pm. Only 4.5 hours later than scheduled and all because one person forgot me and then another decided that a passenger with disability isn’t as important as a non-disabled one.

Throughout today’s flights I have received excellent service and many apologies from Virgin Australia flight attendants and ground crew who have heard about the incident. While I truly appreciate their efforts, no amount of chocolate and wine can erase the loss of agency, lack of dignity, disempowerment  and sense of invisibility I experienced on a day which was meant to be a celebration of progress towards true equality for me and my community.

Blind Citizens Australia will continue to work hard to ensure people who are blind or vision impaired receive high quality, accessible services which meet our needs. But we need companies like Virgin Australia to work with us, not leave us behind. We need them to treat us like we are customers, not luggage. After all, we have paid for a seat like everyone else, and like everyone else, we deserve to travel with dignity. Our families and livelihoods depend on it.

Emma Bennison, CEO