Japanese carrier Vanilla Air forces wheelchair-bound man to crawl onto plane

Vanilla Air did not have a lift at the small airport to move disabled passengers from the tarmac up to the jet’s door

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 June, 2017, 7:21pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 June, 2017, 7:21pm

A Japanese budget airline apologised Wednesday for forcing a wheelchair-bound man to crawl up a set of stairs to board his flight.

Hideto Kijima, 44, was returning earlier this month to Osaka from a vacation in Amami, a small island off southern Japan, when an Vanilla Air employee told him that company safety rules banned anyone from carrying him up the stairs.

Kijima, who is paralysed in the lower body due to a spinal cord injury suffered while playing rugby in high school, runs the Japan Accessible Tourism Centre.

The carrier, the budget arm of All Nippon Airways, did not have a lift at the small airport to move disabled passengers from the tarmac up to the jet’s door.

The airport worker, who was on an outsourcing contract with Vanilla, stopped Kijima’s friends from carrying him up the stairs, citing Vanilla regulations.

The worker allegedly told Kijima he could board the plane if he “can climb up the stairs on his own with the assistance” of people travelling with him.

After hearing that, Kijima got out of his wheelchair and started to crawl up the 17 steps. The worker tried to stop him but Kijima managed to crawl to the top.

Vanilla Air said Wednesday it has apologised to Kijima.

“We’re sorry that we caused him that hardship,” a company spokesman said, adding the carrier has since made it mandatory to have lifts for disabled patrons at that airport.

The airline had previously barred passengers who could not walk from boarding a flight at Amami because it was dangerous to carry someone up the stairs, the spokesman said.

Kijima, a frequent traveller outside Japan, told Nippon TV on Wednesday he was “surprised” when staff said he would not be able to fly if he could not walk up the stairs.

“I wondered if the airport employees didn’t think that was wrong,” he added.

A spokesman for rival Japan Airlines (JAL), which also flies to Amami, said the carrier has a special lift to board passengers in a wheelchair at the airport.

A JAL employee will offer to carry passengers in need if there is no lift available, he added.

The incident comes after a public relations fiasco on United Airlines in April, in which a 69-year-old doctor in the United States was dragged off an overbooked flight.

Additional reporting by Kyodo