BEIRUT: A wheelchair-bound woman who was prevented from boarding a Middle Eastern Airlines plane confirmed to The Daily Star Monday that she planned to file a lawsuit, after staff at the company allegedly humiliated her for not being able to walk.
The accusations were roundly denied by MEA, who said Rola al-Helou did not make her needs clear in advance.
Helou, a journalist and poet, said airline staff told her she could not board her flight to Cairo Sunday because she was alone and then taunted her by challenging her to get up and walk to prove she was able-bodied.
She said she was planning to file a lawsuit over MEA’s treatment of her. “My lawyer is studying the case and is going to take the necessary measures,” she told The Daily Star.
Helou, who travels often and always on her own, said she made clear that she had special needs when she booked her flight to the Egyptian capital with Lebanon’s national carrier at their office in Jal al-Dib, Metn.
But when she arrived at the counter to check in, she was told that she could not board the plane without an escort.
The check-in employee verified with her supervisor, and “he could not be convinced,” Helou said.
Angry, Helou rhetorically asked if she should get up and walk. She said the employee then rudely told her to do exactly that.
“I felt down, I cried and I was depressed,” she said. “My disability has never been an obstacle for me.”
The story was soon picked up by the media and sparked outrage on social media outlets, with many, including the Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union, calling on the airline company to issue an apology.
In a statement, the LPHU warned that they would lead a campaign to boycott MEA if their demands were not met and that they would monitor the airlines’ behavior with travelers with disabilities from now on.
“This happens at Beirut airport a lot, very often,” LPHU head Sylvana Lakkis told The Daily Star. “It’s happened to me. We only know about the ones who report it, but there are many more who don’t.”
“They often forget the special needs information that you submit online,” she said. “So when you get to the airport for check-in, then you have to do this all over again.”
Lakkis accused the airport and MEA of not having adequately trained staff.
“The disability team there have very little training, if they have any at all. They don’t know how to carry people. ... They also don’t know how to put someone in a wheelchair. ... Or sometimes they provide wheelchairs that are too big or too small or else break easily.”
People with special needs, Lakkis noted, included pregnant women, parents with small children and the elderly, making this issue about more than just people with disabilities.
In a statement Monday, MEA said it “abides by all international laws and respects the needs of people with special needs,” adding that it recently opened a special office for such customers.
The airline also insisted their employee did not insult Helou and suggested it had been the opposite:
“We also need to recall the necessity of appropriate language [when dealing] with company employees.”
Helou denies that she was rude.
According to the MEA statement, Helou said while booking her flight that she could walk from her wheelchair to the plane. MEA admitted, however, that she had requested assistance when booking previous flights with the airline.
MEA’s public relations office told The Daily Star it did not have any further comment.
The airline said it provided travel to approximately 100 passengers with special needs daily, including four to five cases of complete paralysis, “without facing any problem.”
Veteran journalist May Chidiac, who lost her left arm and leg in a car bomb in 2005, released a statement Monday in support of Helou, but said it was “unjust” to generalize given that MEA had so far “succeeded in maintaining a high level of modernity and sophistication in dealing with customers.”