Budget airline Jetstar has been criticised for removing a passenger with an arm birth defect from the emergency exit row on a flight from Ballina to Sydney.
James Hall-Thompson was born without a radial bone in his left forearm and had surgery on his wrist to correct it.
“I also don’t have a left thumb but my arm and hand aren’t impaired,” Mr Hall-Thompson told news.com.au.
“On my right, my arm is normal but I’ve got a slightly crooked right thumb. That’s it.”
What happened on the flight
But he didn’t get a chance to explain to the flight attendant, soon after taking his seat on JQ459.
“She came up and started talking to me, then said ‘I’ll sit down so this doesn’t look so rude’,” he told news.com.au.
“She said the cabin manager had noticed my arm and needed me to move. I told her that there’s never been an issue before and I am fit, willing and able to move the (door cover) if needed. She just said ‘I need you to move’.”
Mr Hall-Thompson is a pilot, and had been in Ballina to play in a tennis tournament.
The Civil Aviation and Safety Authority had no issue with Mr Hall-Thompson’s arms, issuing him a Class 1 medical licence which he needs to be a pilot.
“If someone is incapable of operating the exit, I understand that they shouldn’t sit there. As a pilot, I’m all about safety. I would never sit there if I couldn’t remove the hatch.”
Mr Hall-Thompson said the cabin crew were rude to him for the rest of the flight.
“At first I was a bit angry. To be frank, I was on the verge of tears, which is very unusual for me. I had to stand up and move when everyone had already sat down. I felt like I was put on show a little bit. I was embarrassed. It’s shameful,” he said.
Jetstar apologises after being contacted by the media
Mr Hall-Thompson made a formal complaint to the airline and was told he would receive a response within 10 days.
But less than half an hour after news.com.au contacted Jetstar, he received a personal call from the airline’s chief of customer complaints.
“We sincerely apologise for Mr Hall-Thompson’s experience and are reaching out to him directly,” a spokesperson for the airline said in a statement.
“There are strict safety requirements regarding exit rows which are mandated by the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority, however we are looking into what took place in this situation.”
Mr Hall-Thompson said he wants Jetstar to explain how it determines who is able to operate an emergency exit.
“I would like their cabin crew to be trained to understand that a physical appearance isn’t an overall indication of their ability,” he said.
Unlawful to discriminate against someone with an impairment
George Calderon, lawyer and seconded consultant at Discrimination Claims, said it is unlawful to discriminate against a person on the basis of an impairment.
“In most situations, it is unlawful to treat someone less favourably because they have an impairment or a disability,” he said.
“However, when it comes to airline travel, cabin crew have a responsibility for the safety of passengers, and they have a responsibility to make sure the person sitting next to the emergency exit has the ability to operate the hatch.
“It would appear that this was a case of poor communication, because despite his appearance, Mr Hall-Thompson insists that he is not impaired.
“If he was given the opportunity to show that he was capable of operating the emergency exit, I’m sure there wouldn’t have been an issue.”
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