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Wheelchair users cry foul over budget airline fees
Publication Date : 16-07-2012
When paraplegic Colin Poole, 46, wanted to fly to Hanoi last month, he was shocked when Tiger Airways billed him a S$500 (US$395) surcharge for 'wheelchair assistance'.
His one-way flight to the Vietnamese city on the budget airline cost him only S$156 (US$123).
The frequent business traveller said he had called the airlines' customer hotline to ask about wheelchair use before he bought his ticket online, and was not told there would be a surcharge.
But when he called again after booking his flight, he was told by a different person that he would have to pay S$500 for wheelchair assistance services.
"An airline such as Tiger publicly states on its website how much it costs for every extra 5kg of baggage, so why can't they treat disabled travellers equally, and openly disclose how much they charge for wheelchair assistance?" asked the regional manager of American non-governmental organisation Wildlife Conservation Society.
Frustrated, he bought a new ticket with Vietnam Airlines.
When contacted by The Straits Times, a Tiger Airways spokesman said that the fee depended on "the place of embarkation, disembarkation and degree of assistance required". The airline has since refunded Mr Poole's ticket.
Poole's experience is not unusual among wheelchair users who fly budget. They say they have had to deal with surprise charges.
All four low-cost airlines - Tiger, Jetstar and AirAsia and Scoot - state, in fine print, on their websites that they "charge for assistance", although only AirAsia states the fee of 12 ringgit (US$3.70).
Full-fledged airlines do not charge for services for their disabled passengers.
When The Straits Times called the airlines as a paraplegic wheelchair user, Tiger Airways and Jetstar customer service officers insisted that there would be no additional charges.
Of the seven wheelchair users whom The Straits Times spoke to, all had either made their bookings by telephone, or had called ahead to clarify when they were purchasing their tickets.
Yet, all but one said they were not told of the airlines' ground- handling service charges. Two forfeited their tickets, while three others coughed up assistance fees, even though they were capable of wheeling themselves around, they said.
When Jack Lai, 54, booked a flight with Jetstar to Hong Kong in February, he was told at the check-in counter that he needed to check in his wheelchair and pay for assistance. Lai said he had not been informed of the extra charges, even though he had told Jetstar he was a wheelchair user at the time of booking.
He estimates the cost of the surcharges, including four wheelchair assistance fees for a round trip, amounted to more than the S$200 (US$158) he paid for his ticket.
A Jetstar spokesman said that the additional fee is noted in the fine print of its 'carriage of conditions' document when customers book tickets online, and that specific charges are made known to the passenger at check-in.
The spokesman emphasised that the fee - usually S$30 for assistance in Singapore - goes to its ground handlers and is not collected by or for Jetstar Asia.
The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) has received four complaints from wheelchair users since 2010, of which three were against airlines and their services.
Case executive director Seah Seng Choon said: "It is unacceptable that consumers find out about charges only after buying the product. Consumers should not be taken by surprise and airlines should disclose all fees upfront.
"These issues of transparency here should be seriously addressed and Case will continue to push for fee transparency."
Handicaps Welfare Association president Edmund Wan said people who use wheelchairs should not be penalised, while MP Cedric Foo, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, was more concerned about transparency.
"Any company should make clear their surcharges, whether for the disabled or the able," Foo said. "Companies with good practices would not want customers to be surprised by charges."