Japanese airline apologises after disabled man crawls aboard

Japanese budget airline Vanilla Air has issued an apology to Hideto Kijima over the incident.

Japanese budget airline Vanilla Air has issued an apology to Hideto Kijima over the incident. Photo: AP

A Japanese airline has apologised to a disabled rights activist, who is partly paralysed, after it tried to prevent him from boarding a flight at a remote airport, prompting him to crawl up a portable boarding staircase to reach the plane’s cabin.

The airline, Vanilla Air, a budget affiliate of Japan’s largest carrier, All Nippon Airlines, said it offered the apology earlier this month in response to the incident, which occurred on June 3.

The episode drew public attention this week — including outrage against the airline, but also criticism of the activist — after reports surfaced in the Japanese news media.

The activist, Hideto Kijima, said Vanilla Air staff initially told him he would not be allowed to board the small aircraft, which was flying from a small airport on the southern island of Amami to Mr Kijima’s home in Osaka, because it lacked wheelchair-accessible boarding ramps or elevators.

Mr Kijima was paralysed from the waist down while playing rugby as a teenager and now uses a wheelchair.

Angry at the airline’s decision, and worried that he would be stuck on the island, Mr Kijima decided to board anyway, he wrote on his blog.

He was visiting the island with a group of friends, and they offered to carry him up the short stairway from the tarmac, he said. But the airline told them that would violate safety regulations.

So he started crawling.

“I sat down on the stairs and started climbing up one at a time,” he wrote. “The staff told me to stop but I ignored them. How else was I supposed to get back to Osaka?”

He was allowed to take a seat once he reached the top, he said.

Hideto Kijima japan disabled airline

Hideto Kijima spoke to the media in Osaka on June 28, 2017. Photo: AP

Mr Kijima has a long history of campaigning for access to public spaces for the disabled.

He challenged All Nippon Airlines after a similar incident in 2002, in which he was told he could not board a flight because the gate lacked wheelchair access.

Japan was long seen as trailing the West in infrastructure and legal rights for the disabled, though experts say that gap has mostly closed in recent years.

Some advocates have called for renewed efforts to remove barriers before the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.

In a telephone interview, Mr Kijima said he had traveled to dozens of countries and, except in Japan, had never been told he could not board a plane.

“They always find a way,” he said.

Mr Kijima said he had received messages of support on social media, but also a distressing flood of criticism, including more than 100 messages on his Facebook page accusing him of unfairly targeting the airline or making unreasonable demands.

One Facebook user called him a “flying claimer” — using a word, claimer, adopted from English to mean someone who regularly makes nuisance complaints.

“I was surprised how many people didn’t see this as an issue of basic human rights,” Mr Kijima said.

Hirotada Ototake, a well-known author who was born without arms or legs because of a genetic disorder called tetra-amelia syndrome, defended Mr Kijima’s actions.

He pointed out that airlines are legally obliged to ensure disabled travelers can board flights.

“Sure, if traveling smoothly was his only priority, he could have found another airline,” Mr Ototake wrote on his blog.

“But then Vanilla would still be breaking the law.”

A spokesman for Vanilla Air, Akihiro Ishikawa, said the airline had ordered an electric wheelchair lift for its planes on Amami after the incident.

The lift went into service on Thursday, Mr Ishikawa said.

– New York Times

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