By Bandula Kothalawala –
Once again Sri Lankan Airlines is in the news, not surprisingly, for all the wrong reasons. While the lurid details of the extent of the alleged abuses by the top management of the airline have been well publicized and may have even attracted some interest from TV drama producers in Sri Lanka, it seems that the travails of its passengers have received scant attention from any quarter. I should like to put on record my recent ordeal with the airline.
I am a disabled person on a wheelchair. On 25 March 2014, I made a booking on the Sri Lankan Airline’s website on UL 0504 to travel to Colombo to attend the funeral of my brother who, I had just learnt, died of terminal cancer. I contacted the Airline’s office in Colombo immediately afterwards to check whether the booking was OK and request wheelchair assistance. To my surprise, I was told that the Airline’s rules and procedures required passengers to be able to walk unaided up to their seats and that, if they could not, they should produce a medical certificate signed by a doctor. I pleaded with the Airline officials in subsequent phone conversations to help me out in the circumstances and also informed them that I had travelled on Sri Lankan Airlines flights on four occasions (eight trips in total) to and from Colombo since October 2011 and that the last trip was made in November 2013, without ever having to produce any medical certificate.
I also explained to them that I had my own wheelchair, that I could go right up to the aircraft door, if necessary, which I often do, and that I needed assistance only to go to the seat. The officials concerned were unwilling to listen to me and steadfastly refused to provide any assistance without a medical certificate, which contravenes the interpretative guidelines from the European Commission on the rights of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility when travelling by air. Please, see Q2 which clearly states that “the Regulation does not impose an obligation on disabled persons to provide evidence of their disability or reduced mobility (whether medical or other) in order to justify the assistance required. Thus carriers are not allowed to ask for such a proof as a precondition of selling a ticket or permitting carriage.” As far as I am aware, the Sri Lankan Airline website does not publish details of any restrictions on the carriage of disabled persons or persons with reduced mobility, as required by the EU regulation concerned which could have served as a warning against making the booking. After a lengthy conversation with the Airline officials, I had no alternative, but to request that the booking be cancelled. I had no other reason whatsoever to cancel the booking. Not only was the BA alternative more expensive at £609.27 compared to £580.75 already paid to Sri Lankan Airlines, but it was also more inconvenient, the return flight (BA 2042)landing at 23.25BST at Gatwick on 3 April 2014. Moreover, the booking with Sri Lankan Airlines was made at 16.41GMT on 25 March 2014 whereas the booking with British Airways was made at 18.38GMT on the same day after all attempts to secure assistance proved unsuccessful.
On 26 March 2014, I requested the Airline by email to keep the recordings of the phone conversations between their office and me for future reference, for I was concerned that the Airline might deny their insistence on a medical certificate. (Sri Lankan Airlines informs callers that phone conversations are recorded for training and quality purposes). I did not receive any response other than the automatic acknowledgement of the receipt of the message.
In response to my request for a refund of the fare – £580.75, the Airline confirmed to me in an e-mail message on 26 March 2014, that they would deduct £150.00 from the refund due to me and that they would reimburse only £430.75 and ask me to accept the offer. In my reply, I asked them not to proceed with the refund procedures until I had time to seek advice on the matter.
On 3 April 2014, I went to the BIA at about 09.30, although my return flight (BA 2042) was at 14.30, in the hope of finding an amicable settlement of the issue. I approached the Passenger Service Unit of the Sri Lankan Airlines, explained what happened and asked if I could see one of their managers. I was curtly told that they were too busy to see me. I contacted the Airline at the first opportunity from Male in the Maldives during the stopover when the use of phones was allowed and had a long conversation with an official in a final attempt to find an amicable solution. The official who gave his name as Mohammed said, inter alia, that, without the names of the officials who insisted on the medical certificate, he could not do anything, that the cancellation was made at my request, and that the deduction of £150.00 was normal. When I pointed out that the Airline could easily find the names of the officials involved from the recordings of the conversations on 25 March 2014, that I had specifically requested them to keep the recordings for future reference and that they had failed even to reply to it, he simply repeated that he could not do anything without my providing the names of the officials concerned. Although the official concerned was not willing to admit that the Airline had demanded a medical certificate as a precondition for the provision of wheelchair assistance, there is irrefutable evidence that they were well aware of it, for, in an email message to me on Friday 28 March 2014, an official called Nisha said the following:
Dear Dr. Bandula,
Thank you for contacting Sir Lankan Airlines. Apologize for the delay in response and for the inconvenience caused. With reference to the complaint our staff had requested for the Meda Form since the passenger is disabled. Meda form was requested in order to check whether the medical assistance is needed and to allocate the Wheel chair assistance. Tks, Nisha.
In the course of my duties as a member of the European Union and International Relations Department of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), I have travelled to various destinations in Europe, Asia, Africa and North and South America in the last 20 years, mostly on BA flights, of which I am an executive club member. Never has any airline demanded a medical certificate as a precondition to provide wheelchair assistance for me. Nor have I had to pay a fine for a cancellation necessitated by the circumstances totally beyond my control.
In April 2014, I made a complaint to the UK Civil Aviation Authority to secure the reimbursement of the fare and the difference between Sri Lankan Airlines and BA fares which amounted to £28.52. I also made a complaint to Mr Kapila Chandrasena, CEO, but did not even receive an acknowledgement. Sri Lankan Airlines ignored messages from the CAA for five months. It was only in September 2014 – six months after the incident – that the airline finally agreed to refund the full fare. The CAA had also asked the airline to refund the difference in fares (£28.52). To my utter surprise, the airline, in a letter dated 17 Oct 2014, insisted that I fill in and sign a form which included the following clause:
“I HEREBY agree to indemnify Sri Lankan Airlines Limited, its servants, agents from and against all further claims by whomsoever made in respect of the said loss and/or damage and flight.”
I had to seek legal advice due to the sweeping nature of the wording and was advised not to sign it, as it is clearly in breach of the consumer protection regulations in the UK (Unfair terms in consumer contracts regulations 1999 -Regulation 5(5), Schedule 2, (1) I, in particular).
In my letter dated 29 Oct 2014, I informed the airline that I had no problem with filling in the form and signing it without this particular clause in full, final and complete settlement of the matter, which would protect the airline against any further claim by me or by anyone acting on my behalf. The airline has yet to reply to my letter!
I am fully aware that my experience pales into insignificance compared to the colossal waste and endemic corruption allegedly afflicting the airline. Nevertheless, I believe that Mr Weliamuna and his team should also know how the airline treats its passengers and handles their complaints.
 Interpretative Guidelines on the Application of Regulation(EC) No 1107/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 July 2006 concerning the rights of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility when travelling by air, Brussels, 11.6.2012, SWD (2012), 171 Final