Olly Vaughan Jones, 35, was bed-bound for four of 10 years since he discovered he has myalgic encephalomyelitis, so when he had the chance, he pushed himself to travel more and show other people with disabilities that they can do it, too. However, he never expected to have such a nightmare experience with an airline when he began traveling.
Jones was returning home after a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, on December 19, when his flight on Norwegian Airways was diverted to Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport because of the Gatwick drone debacle. After landing, the plane sat on the runway for four hours, and once they disembarked, Jones was stranded at the gate without his wheelchair which was left on the plane.
After disembarking, Jones says he begged Norwegian Airways employees and their accessibility team for their assistance in taking him to one of the airport’s restrooms as he waited for his wheelchair, but they refused.
“All I kept getting told was a chair would come in 10 minutes times, but meanwhile I kept getting more and more desperate for the toilet,” he told i.
“It’s panic-inducing when you need to go in public and you can’t. You stare at things trying to distract yourself.”
Eventually, Jones had to urinate on himself.
“Passengers sat near me where trying to ask for help too. It just got to the point where I had to wet myself, it was humiliating,” he said.
“The worst thing was that there was staff at an adjacent desk – I wasn’t sure which airline they were from – who were smirking when I was begging for help and found my distress amusing.”
Finally, airport staff brought him a temporary wheelchair and he cleaned himself in the bathroom, but as soon as he returned to the gate area, the temporary wheelchair was taken away.
“I spent another three hours sitting there,” he said. “There was no awareness at all that when you take away a disabled person’s wheelchair it’s like taking away their legs. It makes you feel so vulnerable.”
He added, “I had no access to a toilet again, nor any food or drink since I’d been on the runway. I just kept thinking, I have paid for this experience.”
To top it all off, when Norwegian Airlines finally brought him his wheelchair, he discovered they had broken it.
“I watched as all the abled-bodied passengers cleared out to get on a bus to London,” he explained. “I was just left and a woman [who] sat near me thankfully got hold of someone.”
“So I went to collect my chair but it was in a state, the leg braces and the seat were all bent, and the electric controller was smashed meaning it can’t work at all,” he said.
Jones managed to “half-fix” the wheelchair so it was semi-usable, and yet, it wasn’t fixed well enough to make it easy for him to get his luggage.
Despite all the trouble he’d already gone through, Norwegian Airlines continue to treat him poorly.
The airline placed Jones in a hotel for the night and told him they would be in touch to arrange his travel home the next day, but they never called, essentially forgetting about him.
“I was in the hotel for four days, having to pay for the accommodation and food out of my own pocket,” he said. “I couldn’t get through to anyone and my father spent £120 on international phone calls to the airline trying to get me help.”
Eventually, Jones got a hold of the airline and they told him that they had arranged a flight for him to Liverpool which was only an hour and a half from his home. They had also set up an accessible shuttle to pick him up on December 23 and take him to the airport.
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However, the shuttle never arrived.
“I got up in the early hours and waited and nothing,” he said. “The hotel helped me arrange to get there by public transport but it was too late, I’d missed the flight.”
Jones had to then pay for his own flight to Heathrow, and couldn’t use Heathrow Express, an airport rail link between the airport and Paddington because he was struggling with his broken wheelchair and luggage and staff wouldn’t allow that. Jones’ father had to drive four hours from Wales to pick him up.
“I had a relapse for seven days straight after which kind of ruined Christmas for us,” he said. “I feel it was brought on the whole experience which had been physically and mentally draining.”
Jones filmed himself on his trip in an effort to inspire other people with disabilities to travel, but this experience with Norwegian Airlines has left him feeling upset.
“I’ve started to do short YouTube videos to show other disabled people how it works when you travel, who you need to ask for help from at an airport, how they get you on the plane, for example,” he said, adding, “But sadly what happened to me shows that airlines and airports are still lagging behind. There are protocols in place but they tend to fall apart if there’s some problem or issue. They don’t have back up plans in place.”
A Norwegian Airlines spokesperson said: “We sincerely apologize to Mr. Jones for his journey was diverted following the closure of Gatwick Airport due to suspected drone activity.”
“We arranged hotel accommodation and rebooked his flights four times due to the customer missing his flights following miscommunication and wheelchair issues. As a leading European carrier, we always follow EU Regulation 261/2004 regarding delays where applicable and cover the expenses our passengers incur in circumstances such as these.”
“Mr. Jones was refunded his expenses and we are currently in contact with him to issue a maximum £1,218 for the customer’s wheelchair damage, in line with the Montreal Convention. We would like to apologize for the inconvenience caused.”
Despite their offer to pay only half of the cost of the wheelchair repair which is about £2,400 ($3,108), Jones doesn’t think this is enough and that the airline doesn’t understand the importance of his wheelchair.
“I need my wheelchair in full working order, since I got an electric one it’s literally transformed my life and I can’t do without it,” he said.
“But as well as the costs, I want the airline to apologize and hold their hands up and say ‘we didn’t do enough here’. If mistakes aren’t acknowledged, then things will never get better for disabled people.”
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