'Captain told me to wear nappy as my flight had no accessible toilet', says star launching campaign
By Rachel Dixon, Multimedia Producer
“My dad wears a nappy on flights, maybe you should do the same,” is the response an unnamed airline captain gave Sophie Morgan, when she realised she would be trapped on a four-hour flight with no wheelchair access to the toilet.
“Should I just wee on the seat?” she replied in disbelief.
“It’s not my problem,” he said.
From no toilets, to her wheelchair being broken apart, and being told to "stand-up" despite being paralysed, the Loose Women star shared how she has been subjected to degrading treatment on flights for the last 20 years.
Morgan told ITV News: “No other form of transport abuses our human rights like air travel.
“If you think about it, they’re stopping us from being able to use the loo, they’re stopping us from being able to move, they’re taking away our devices.”
The 38-year-old is now lobbying the government for "urgent change" and wants Westminster to enable the aviation watchdog to implement strict fines on airlines that make flying inaccessible for wheelchair users.
A couple of weeks ago, Morgan landed at Heathrow Airport after a trip to LA. As she reached the edge of the British Airways aircraft, she was met with her wheelchair.
It was broken, bent and twisted, with its battery pack incorrectly attached after it was stored in the hold – the only way to fix it was to "break" it apart, she said.
Sophie Morgan shared a video of airline staff breaking her wheelchair apart after it was damaged in the aeroplane's hold
The TV presenter, who was left with a spinal injury after a car crash when she was 18 years old, panicked as airline staff attempted to prise apart her £5,000 wheelchair.
Pressure had started to build in her back during the 10-hour journey from the US and she said she was "scared s***less," in a video of the incident she shared on social media.
Speaking to ITV News she said: “I go through a range of emotions - shock, anger.
"I’m sitting on an aisle chair [a generic chair for disabled people to use when flying, provided by airlines] which is not safe for longer than the journey, clinging on for dear life. They’re trying to help me but it’s ridiculous.
“Underneath it all is a huge amount of fear. If they can’t fix it I am beyond stuck, I’m completely paralysed.
"It’s like me chopping your legs off, you can’t actually move, it’s terrifying.”
British Airways told ITV News: "We're extremely sorry for Sophie's experience and we’ve been in contact with her to sincerely apologise and to resolve the matter directly.
"It's extremely disheartening when things go wrong, and we don’t underestimate the impact this has."
The airline said it works hard to assist thousands of passengers with additional needs and are working with Morgan to make improvements for all disabled customers.
The consequences of not being able to use a wheelchair that fits properly can be serious, even fatal. In October 2021, Californian disability activist Engracia Figueroa died after her wheelchair was damaged on a flight.
For months, she battled with United Airlines to replace her $30,000 (over £25,000) chair, but during that time she was reportedly forced to use a wheelchair which did not support her torso and hips.
She developed a pressure sore which became infected, which spread into her hip bone, according to a charity she often represented, Hand in Hand.
Doctors tried to save her life with emergency surgery, but she passed away.
When Morgan returned home from Heathrow in her "creaking" wheelchair, she was flooded with messages of support from people who had seen the video she posted of the incident on her Instagram.
She said: “The reaction from social media was so strong that I thought, do you know what, this is going to have to happen.
“The fight landed on me but it’s important, it is really urgently needed.
“When these stories make the news it’s the shocking element of people being stranded - and it is shocking, Christ, people have died - but no one is talking about the solution and that’s why this campaign is asking for change.”
The RightsonFights campaign
Morgan has teamed up with MP Marion Fellows, the SNP Westminster spokesperson on Disabilities, to build a campaign called RightsOnFlights.
The pair, with support from charity Disability Rights UK, have written a letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, urging the government to enable the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to impose strict penalties on airlines if they do the following:
Damage wheelchairs or essential mobility devices
Leave disabled passengers on flights for a prolonged period once the flight has landed
Fail to provide adequate assistance despite prior knowledge of disabled passengers' needs
They are aiming to get as many signatures as possible from MPs and influential disabled people.
How has the government responded?
It is not the first time the government has brought in fines for the aviation watchdog to implement on airlines.
During the pandemic, fines were brought in for flight operators which did not adhere to Covid restrictions, leading to Romanian airline Blue Air Aviation having to pay £40,000 in February 2022.
Morgan met with the CAA and discussed how airports are being held accountable.
Last year, the watchdog said it found airports' treatment of disabled passengers was "unacceptable" and oversaw millions of pounds of investment made by airports towards improving the experience for disabled passengers.
CAA Head of Consumer, Anna Bowles, said: "We have said that we would welcome more powers and have regularly asked for stronger consumer enforcement powers, including the ability to impose fines on airlines.
"This would allow us to take faster action when appropriate and bring our powers in line with other sectoral regulators.”
The government said it wants "all transport to be accessible for everyone".
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: "Having consulted on additional enforcement powers for the Civil Aviation Authority and increased compensation for wheelchairs and mobility equipment damaged or lost on UK domestic flights, we will set out our response in due course."
What's the end goal?
"The end goal is a space for wheelchair users, on aircraft like a bus, plane, and an accessible toilet. We should all be able to be independent," said Morgan.
She also hopes the Air 4 All system, which allows chairs on planes to be folded and power wheelchairs to be locked in place for the flight, could be rolled out across airlines.
"If they can put in double beds and they can put showers, bars and huge suits on first class cabins, it just shows you what money can buy – and it just shows what you can’t get as a disabled person," she added.
"What we need is legislative change but we need the airlines to collaborate to make this a solutions based project not just a bashing – the whole system needs to be revamped.
"They’re going to have to respond because we’re not going anywhere."
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