Qantas’ disability services

In last week’s blog post I briefly mentioned how I would not bother using Qantas’ disability services again on a domestic flight, and thought I should elaborate on that.  First and foremost I would like to say that this is no reflection on Qantas’ customer service at the airport as it was really good.  It was more the framework that staff were working to that was unhelpful, as well as ‘Special Handling’ team that I contacted beforehand not really understanding the accommodations that could be useful for autistics.  It looks like they have plans for passengers with physical disability and medical concerns, but not autism specifically which perplexes me because it is such a common disability.

What accommodations did I request?

When I initially consulted the disability section of the Qantas web page, I was somewhat surprised to note that there were extensive sections on the process for assisting passengers with a variety of disabilities, but absolutely nothing on autism.  So I made an initial inquiry via email and I wanted to keep it fairly broad to I could report back in with any variety of accommodations that they may offer.  My initial contact:

“My son XXXXXXXX is autistic (moderate to severe). He is a pretty good traveller, however ………………….. I was wondering if there were any services to assist autistic passengers?”

I found their reply below unusual as autism is not a medical condition.  Though to be fair my initial inquiry was fairy broad, and in the spirit of being transparent, yes I was keeping it quite broad because I was testing if Qantas’ disability services had any idea of what would be helpful for a family travelling with an autistic 6  year old.  They had no clue.:

“Should you require an Escort on board this would be at an additional cost and would need to be arranged in advanced and at least five days prior to departing. Flight attendants are not medically trained.

We do require your son to be able to attend to his own on board needs however as he is travelling with you this would be your responsibility in flight to assist your son where necessary with toileting, feeding themselves as well as administrating own medication and following instructions.”

I decided to be less difficult and get specific:

“Thanks for your reply. He has no medical issues.  I was thinking more along the lines of just having it noted on his reservation so crew are aware.

 

The biggest issue for us though is just queues/waiting. Is there a way we could do expedited security and boarding, as it would also make the world of difference.

 

Oh and sorry to be a pain, but I just wanted to check that it is ok to use his CARES harness on these flights?”

 

Their response:

“Qantas provides a meet and assist service to passengers who require guidance and assistance proceeding through airport facilities and/or the handling of documents.

As per your email, the appropriate request for assistance has been placed in your booking as well as the Cares Restraint.”

This was much more useful, however in hindsight they hadn’t confirmed the use of the CARES Harness, just acknowledged it on the booking and this is where the difficulty started.

The problem

The day before the flight I went to check in on-line.  It created a boarding pass for my daughter and I, but the system would not issue one for Touristo.  After 40 minutes on hold with customer service I found out that this was because someone had logged the CARES Harness as a car seat and I had to meet a rep at the airport for an Engineer to fit it.  If doesn’t need ‘fitting’, it takes 30 seconds to fit over the seat.  The CARES Harness is approved for use in general on Qantas as stated on their website, I had just wanted to know ahead of time if it could be used on the business class seats (due to the lie flat mechanism on the back).  Anyhow…….the customer service rep could not change the note on our booking and issue the boarding pass online, so I had to find someone to help at the airport, which didn’t bother me so much because I had to meet someone for the meet and greet service anyway.

When I arrived at the airport there was no clear signage as to how to actually find the meet and greet service.  As I was wrangling both kids by myself, I just grabbed the first human I could find.  It wasn’t her area, nor her responsibility but she was an absolute champ (as far as ground staff and cabin crew are concerned – the folks at Qantas are absolute stars – I just want to keep reiterating that) and did her absolute best to clear up the issue, print our boarding passes and expedite us through to our gate.  So what’s the issue?  It took longer to find the appropriate person, wait for them to be available, explain the convoluted issue and have the boarding passes printed, than it would have if I had been able to download boarding passes to my phone and wait at the regular security line as it was just a domestic flight.

So whilst none of this was hugely problematic, it was quite stressful and made the trip more difficult than it needed to be. I was just really lucky that Touristo was having a particularly good day – it could have been much worse.  I feel like the disabilities sections of airlines do need to take a step up and invest the same level of effort with passengers who have developmental / cognitive disabilities as they do for passengers with physical disabilities.

Once again, I would like to reiterate that I found the staff on the day to be amazing, both in the skies and on the ground.  It is the disability services section that has a long way to go.  Now anyone who knows me will know that I am not the type to say something is crap, without providing constructive ideas for improvement…..so here goes.

A few suggestions as to how Qantas could make their airline more autism friendly.

Include an autism section on the disability services section of the airline’s website, develop processes for accommodating autistic passengers and train staff in disability services appropriately.
I think this should be a bare minimum sort of thing really.  Obviously due to the nature of autism being so individual, the accommodations would need to vary from person to person however I feel a reasonable process would be Qantas saying “here are all of the possible accommodations we have for autistic passengers. Which ones of these are going to help you and your individual needs?”  I don’t feel it should be up to customers to have to do the asking, as some passengers aren’t even going to necessarily know what is possible and what would help – there should be a list ready to work from.

This could also be a great place to house some really great resources e.g.:

  • social stories
  • video social stories
  • instructional videos on what to expect
  • airport maps – detailing where to find the meet and greet service for passengers with disabilities 
  • suggested break/quiet areas
  • ‘how to guides’ for autistic adults explicitly stating how to get their boarding pass, check their bags, go through security and get to their gate so they can get their head around it ahead of time and not melt down at the airport

Stroller as wheelchair service – allow passengers with cognitive / developmental disabilities to check their stroller at the gate.
I have done this in other airports around the world and it was unbelievably handy.  Whilst a lot of airports do offer rental strollers, this is not particularly appropriate because my son is about 120cm tall and really needs his own stroller that he fits in – he hasn’t been able to fit in a rental stroller since he was two years old.  Having the ability to keep him feeling safe and contained through a terminal would be AMAZING, particularly at large, international terminals.

Expedited security with the options of not having to meet a customer service person
For some people on the autism spectrum, it would be extremely handy to have a customer service person walk them to the gate.  This would be particularly helpful for adults who have the ability to wait, but have difficulty organising their documents, knowing how to get to their gate or feel they could get overwhelmed by the whole process and may need support.  However, in our situation waiting for a customer service person so we don’t have to wait at security makes no sense.  A better option would just be a note on the reservation stating that our party is entitled to use the express path at security.

Practice days for kids 
For children who have never traveled before, it would be very helpful to have days throughout the year where a group of people can practice the process of getting through the airport and onto a plane.  This also would allow them not to just learn the process, but also familiarise themselves with the airport and a plane so it’s not so uncomfortable.  Some families don’t travel because they don’t want to risk spending thousands of dollars on a vacation and not knowing if they can even get through an airport and on to the plane.  A service like this would allow families to test this and if it didn’t go well, practice this over time so eventually it is doable.

Signage for where to find the staff to assist with ‘meet and greet’ at the airport
I don’t think this point requires elaboration.

Now these suggestions are just a handful of possibilities, none of which take a great deal to implement. If an airline truly wanted to be inclusive for all passengers, there is way more that an airline could do than this initial list that I thought of on the fly…… I just wanted to illustrate the bare bones starting point that would be helpful.

Anyway, I am signing off – I would love to hear any reader suggestions either here or on Facebook.

 

 

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