Terminally ill dad calls for better disabled airline procedures

A Livingston dad with MND is speaking out after being separated from his carer on a 5-hour flight.

Terminally ill dad calls for better disabled airline procedures

Posted : 24/10/2019

A terminally ill father of three, David Gardiner (58) from Livingston, is seeking changes to the way airlines prioritise severely disabled passengers after he was separated from his wife and primary carer on a Jet2 flight, on what could have been their last holiday together with their children.

David, a former football coach, is married to Tracey (50) and the couple are parents to Aimee (17), Jak (16), and Aaron (15). The family’s lives were turned upside down in August 2016 when David was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND).

MND is a rapidly progressing terminal illness, which stops signals from the brain reaching the muscles. This may cause someone to lose the ability to walk, talk, eat, drink or breathe unaided. The condition has left David severely disabled.

David said: “The charity MND Scotland provided us with a £1,000 holiday grant to spend some special time together as a family, so we decided to go to Antalya, Turkey. We knew this could be our last holiday abroad together due to my condition.

“We were very excited to be able to have a holiday and we found a resort that was close to the airport, with disabled friendly rooms. This would make the holiday slightly easier and enjoyable for us as a family to make lasting memories.

“The only thing left was to make sure we booked seats on the plane that were close to the exit doors, and to the toilets, so I didn’t have too far to struggle walking. We secured our seats straight away for peace of mind, but when we arrived at the boarding gate on the day we were shocked to find out that our seats had been changed and that we’d be split up.

“This was the first we’d heard about the change in our seating arrangements. My wife explained that I needed my family around me, because I would require various aspects of care throughout the flight, but we were told no other passengers could be moved and that this was an “unfortunate situation”.

“My wife, who is my primary carer, advised the crew that I needed someone to help me with drinks, food, getting in and out of my seat, and being mobile and getting to the toilet, and we were again told that this was “unfortunate”.

“We then had to wait at the boarding gate for an hour before we were allowed on the plane. It was very distressing and upsetting for all of us, as all of the other passengers were allowed to board. It made me feel extremely anxious about boarding the plane and being on the flight.

“When we boarded the plane, we were told the seat moves were due to one available seat in our row being allocated to a child. The parents of the child had not booked their family’s seats, so at no point should this have affected us. There were several other rows with independent adults in them that could have been moved, rather than splitting up a severely disabled man from his wife and primary carer, but we weren’t listened to.

“We took off 45 minutes late and we were in the air for nearly five hours. Getting to the toilets was challenging for all of us. Tracey was put in a window seat in another row, and was blocked in by two sleeping passengers, so I had to rely on my two sons to help me get up. It was a nightmare.”

David began experiencing the first symptoms of his condition in 2015 after noticing a limp in his leg.

He said: “I first went to the GP after I was involved in a road traffic accident in October 2015 and I started walking with a limp in my leg. I was advised that this was due to the accident and that I’d need physio, but things didn’t get better, they just got worse. I then developed foot-drop and went back to my GP for further tests.

“I was sent to the Western General Hospital for x-rays, blood tests, an MRI, and nerve conductive tests, before I was eventually diagnosed with MND in August 2016.

“I was devastated at giving up work, not being able to do what I enjoy, and not being able to provide for my family.

“Every day is a challenge that we have to get through. Each day you wake up and you’re unsure how you’ll be feeling and how much progression of the disease has happened – and which part of the body it is now affecting. We just have to remain positive and keep going although it can be very stressful and tiring.”

Upon returning from the holiday, David and the family complained to Jet2 to be advised that Jet2 was within their rights, as stated in their terms and conditions, to move passengers’ seats at any time. It was only after a second email that the airline agreed to refund the seat allocation fee, however the family did not receive this until the family got in touch with MND Scotland to advocate on behalf of the family.

The airline has since apologised to the family for the distress caused.

Craig Stockton, Chief Executive of MND Scotland, said: “It’s deeply disappointing that Jet2, which won this year’s “Best-Rated Airline in Europe” award, chose to separate a severely disabled passenger from his wife and carer, despite the family making the crew aware of Mr Gardiner’s care needs.

“David’s family did everything right, including booking their seats in advance, but it seems little was done to find a solution which safeguarded Mr Gardiner’s dignity and respect in this situation.

“In our subsequent advocacy of Mr Gardiner, the airline has appeared to struggle to justify why it was Mr Gardiner who was asked to move, and therefore left in a position with limited care for over five hours.

“I hope that lessons can be learned and that Jet2 will consider more robust procedures around bookings for disabled passengers in the future. I'm glad to hear that Jet2 has offered an apology to Mr Gardiner and his family for the distress this caused.”

MND Scotland is the leading charity in Scotland providing care and support to people affected by Motor Neurone Disease (MND), as well as funding vital research into finding a cure.