AIR Namibia has apologised to the Walvis Bay teenager whose mother complained that the airline had barred her daughter from boarding a plane last week due to her disability.
The Namibian yesterday reported that Annastasia Helao's daughter, Victoria Martin (16) was denied a flight by Air Namibia, despite prior bookings which were already paid for, because the national airline does not cater for persons who use wheelchairs.
Helao said the experience had left her daughter feeling hurt and humiliated as she was already facing similar rejection by her peers. Martin, who has been a paraplegic (paralised from the waist down), for two years, missed her appointment with her doctor last week because she could not travel from Walvis Bay to Windhoek in time after they were forced to switch to road transport.
In a press statement issued yesterday, Air Namibia's head of communications, Paul Nakawa, said the airline regrets the incident, and apologised to the mother and daughter "for the unfortunate incident and inconveniences caused by being denied to board the ERJ 35 Embraer aircraft.
He said Air Namibia operates its x4 ERJ 35 Embraer for domestic routes only, x4 Airbus A319-100 for some regional routes and x2 Airbus A330 - 100 used on regional and international routes, respectively.
"The domestic routes are serviced by the Embraer Rear Jet (ERJ) with the seat capacity of 37 passengers. However, the ERJ aircraft does not make provision for wheelchair-bound passengers due to its narrow size, design and weight restrictions," explained Nakawa.
He said the aircraft's staircase strictly allows for only one passenger to board at any given time, hence the requirement that every passenger boarding this aircraft is required to climb the staircase on their own without any assistance.
"The machinery used to lift passengers onto the aircraft is only compatible to the bigger aircraft (A319-100 and A330-100) used on regional and international routes," he stated.
Nakawa said due to the size of the aircraft on domestic routes, it is only assigned one safety officer on board. "In case of emergencies, all passengers are required to be able to aid themselves during evacuation in case the safety officer is rendered incapacitated," he said.
It is the airline's future aspirations to operate bigger aircraft on domestic routes, which can accommodate passengers in wheelchairs.
"Unfortunately, these aircraft cannot operate at some of our airports due to limited equipment and infrastructure, as the domestic airports cannot accommodate bigger aircraft at the moment. We fully comply with the country's laws, and safety is key in our daily operations," he continued.
He further urged members of the flying public to declare if they are incapacitated at the point of booking. By so doing, they will be assisted accordingly, based on their needs to ensure that incidents such as this are minimised in future.