An airline is reviewing its boarding processes for disabled passengers after a Dubai mobility campaigner was left stranded in London when her wheelchair was lost in transit.
Shobhika Kalra, 31, is the CEO and founder of Wings of Angelz, a group she leads to improve access to wheelchair ramps around Dubai.
Ms Kalra, who has a rare genetic disorder called Friedreich’s ataxia — which causes progressive neurological damage — is unable to stand unaided and relies on her wheelchair for mobility.
After boarding a flight to London with Swiss International Airlines (SIA) in Dubai two weeks ago, ground crew wrapped her custom made motorised chair to be transported as air cargo and offered Ms Kalra a temporary replacement.
On arrival in London, Ms Kalra was informed the airline had misplaced her wheelchair and was unable to provide a replacement to be taken outside of the airport, forcing her to rent her own for £300, around Dh1400.
“When I landed I was told the wheelchair had likely been left in Dubai and would have to be brought on the next flight available,” said Ms Kalra, adding that she needed her wheelchair to continue her journey.
“The airline would not let me take their wheelchair beyond the airport, even though I was unable to walk a step on my own.
“My mum even offered to pay the cost of the wheelchair as a deposit so we could use it until mine had been returned to me, but they would not let me use it because of health and safety issues."
Ms Kalra said she had to be lifted from an airport taxi into the house where she was staying.
The next two days of her stay in the UK were spent trying to obtain a replacement chair suitable for her needs.
When her wheelchair finally arrived, Ms Kalra said the battery had been broken "as if it had been thrown around".
"It is a heavy duty wheelchair, it would have taken some force to break it," she said. "It was cracked and no longer working," adding that she was surprised at how insensitive people were to her needs.
“The people at the Swiss Air counter at check-in insisted I wrap the wheelchair to protect it, but what was the point?
“It was a very bad experience.”
As a disability campaigner in Dubai, Ms Kalra has helped thousands of people become more independent by successfully bidding for the construction of more than 1,000 wheelchair ramps across the city.
She works alongside Dubai Municipality, transport authorities and retailers to locate areas in need of accessibility improvements for those with special needs.
Her efforts have been recognised in the UAE and in her native India where she was granted an award by Change.Org for being ‘A Woman who creates Change’.
Airline to cover costs
The airline has since apologised for the incident, and for taking two days to respond to her complaint.
It has also covered wheelchair repair costs and offered vouchers for future travel on SIA.
“We are very much aware of the importance of care especially for our passengers with special needs,” said Michael Stief, a spokesman for Swiss International Airlines.
“We would like to take the opportunity to apologise again on behalf of Swiss and its co-operation partners, for the inconvenience and the stress this has caused Ms Kalra.
“We can only imagine how difficult this situation has been for her, arriving at her destination without her wheelchair."
Mr Steif added that in case where's a passenger's wheelchair is missing at arrival, the "airline and the airport are not able to provide the passenger with a replacement wheelchair in the meantime".
He also apologised for the the damaged caused.
“This is an unfortunate isolated incident, but we are always critically reviewing our processes to ensure we continue to provide a seamless travel experience for our guests," he said.