Passenger wins right to take airline discrimination fight to supreme court


A disabled air passenger has won permission to take an airline to the supreme court, to fight a legal ruling that leaves disabled travellers with no protection from in-flight discrimination.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is backing the case of Christopher Stott, who lost his claim for damages against Thomas Cook earlier this year.

Three court of appeal judges ruled in February that international rules on air travel – the Montreal Convention – should take precedence during flights over UK law and a European regulation on accessibility and discrimination.

The ruling meant that disabled people would not be able to claim compensation from an airline if they faced discrimination during a flight.

Stott had booked a return flight with Thomas Cook to the Greek island of Zante for himself and his wife – his carer – in September 2008.

While boarding the flight home, Stott’s wheelchair overturned and he fell to the cabin floor. Because he is paralysed from the shoulders down, he was unable to get himself up, but staff appeared not to know what to do, leaving him “angry, humiliated and distressed”.

Stott had also been promised a seat next to his wife, but they were not allowed to sit together, so she had to keep leaving her seat during the flight to kneel in the aisle next to her husband to provide him with personal care.

The court of appeal found in February that the cabin crew did not attempt to ease the couple’s difficulties in any way, and ruled that discrimination had taken place.

But the judges decided that damages could not be awarded because such discrimination is not covered by the Montreal Convention.

The EHRC believes the convention is irrelevant to the claims and rights of disabled travellers because it does not deal with discrimination.

John Wadham, the EHRC’s general counsel, welcomed the supreme court’s decision to hear the appeal, which he said was “not only significant for Mr Stott, but for all disabled passengers anywhere in Europe who are discriminated against while flying”.

He said: “We believe that treating passengers with equality and dignity includes fully recognising the rights of disabled passengers, which also includes the right to compensation when things go wrong.”

A Thomas Cook spokeswoman said: “We take our responsibility to disabled passengers extremely seriously and offer our sincere apologies for the distress caused to Mr Stott.

“While we accept that on this rare occasion there were problems with Mr Stott’s requests, the Court of Appeal agreed with our view that no compensation was due.”

The EHRC has published Your Rights to Fly, a short guide to the rights of disabled people and air travel.

29 November 2012