‘They took my legs away.’ Billie Boele is comforted by her mum Heike Fabig.
‘They took my legs away.’ Billie Boele is comforted by her mum Heike Fabig.

Daughter’s heartbreaking Jetstar photo

The mum of a girl who sobbed that Jetstar staff "took my legs away" after she was forced out of her electric wheelchair and strapped to a smaller airline chair has slammed the airline in an open letter.

Twelve-year-old Billie Boele was flying with her mum Heike Fabig from Sydney to Launceston so she could play in a boccia competition, a Paralympic ball sport.

When the pair arrived at Sydney Airport two hours head of their Jetstar flight on March 29, they were told Billie had to get out of her electric wheelchair at the check-in desk and use a narrow aisle chair designed to be used on aircraft.

According to Jetstar policy, electric wheelchairs must be checked in at the baggage drop and can't be checked in at the boarding gate, and passengers are given a choice between an airport wheelchair and an aisle chair.

 

Billie Boele sitting in the airline's aisle chair is consoled by her mum Heike Fabig.
Billie Boele sitting in the airline's aisle chair is consoled by her mum Heike Fabig.

 

But Ms Fabig said they were told Billie wasn't allowed to drive her chair to the door of the aircraft because there was no lift nearby.

"When asked why this was so, it was explained to us that 'there is no lift near the gate' and staff would have to push the chair from the aircraft back to the lift near the check-in counter, then travel down, and push the chair back to the aircraft to be loaded into the hold," Ms Fabig said in the letter.

She said Billie couldn't sit safely in the aisle chairs and "had to be strapped up in order to not fall out".

"Keeping in mind that we had arrived super early as a courtesy to your staff to allow a smooth check-in, this meant that Billie was in essence strapped into a chair for about two hours, as if in some type of straitjacket," the mum said.

"She was absolutely distraught and petrified the entire time. In between her sobbing she said 'they literally just took my legs away'."

She said Billie asked a photo be taken of her in the aisle chair so "people can see what it's like, because they don't understand".

 

Ms Fabig has asked Jetstar to explain why people who use electric wheelchairs have to give them up at check-in and not hours later when they board.
Ms Fabig has asked Jetstar to explain why people who use electric wheelchairs have to give them up at check-in and not hours later when they board.

But what made the difficult incident more confusing was when the mum and daughter flew out of Launceston back to Sydney, Billie was allowed to stay in her electric wheelchair at check-in and drive it up to the door of the plane before she swapped it for an aisle seat.

And she said while the lack of lifts near the gate was given as the reason Billie couldn't hang on to her electric wheelchair for longer, Ms Fabig said there were lifts nearby.

In her letter, she asked Jetstar chief executive Gareth Evans to explain why people who used self-propelling wheelchairs couldn't make their own way to the boarding gate.

"Forcing electric wheelchair users into manual chairs at check-in is a restrictive and discriminatory practice not based on any logical and proportionate reason," she said.

"Insisting that people transfer to manual chairs that need to be driven by others rather than self-propelled infantises wheelchair users."

A Jetstar spokesman told news.com.au: "We take the safety and comfort of passengers who require specific assistance very seriously.

"We are looking into Ms Fabig's and her daughter's experience to better understand what happened.

"We appreciate their boarding was frustrating and the travel could have been smoother, and we are in contact with Ms Fabig about the experience."