By Paul Sandford, director, ASM Plus
Harry and Sally book a cheap return Stansted to Lorento flight with Last Resort Airways. For some years Sally has been very ill. She is barely able to walk and if she wishes to mobilise for anything more than a few metres she uses her self-propelled wheelchair. Any long-distance travelling is difficult for her but she feels a short holiday will do her good.
Harry has misgivings about flying with Last Resort but he and Sally have always wanted to go to Lorento and no other airline flies to an airport anywhere close to it. Before booking, Harry contacts Last Resort and asks what provision will be made for Sally. He is told by a senior manager, Mr Yesman, that there is no problem about her using her wheelchair and that when boarding and disembarking they will be given priority. Harry is concerned that because Lorento airport is very small, the facilities might be a little primitive. However, Mr Yesman tells him that the boarding and alighting arrangements at Lorento are the equivalent of those at Stansted. He also says that Sally’s in-flight needs will be accommodated in full and that there will be no additional charges. Harry asks Mr Yesman to record their conversation on the Last Resort computer notepad.
When Harry subsequently books over the telephone he relays the gist of this conversation to the booking clerk, Miss Helpful. She checks her records, reiterates Mr Yesman’s assurances and says that Sally’s needs will be met in full.
On the date of departure Harry and Sally arrive at Stansted in good time. They discover that only three out of 15 Last Resort check-in desks are open and that there are hundreds of people queuing at them. Harry tries to enquire as to whether he and Sally can be prioritised but cannot find anyone to speak to. When he and Sally eventually reach a check-in desk they are confronted by a very stressed and rather abrupt booking clerk, Jonah, who checks his computer records and says that there is no mention of Sally being a wheelchair user or of having any special needs. He says that when it comes to boarding the aircraft, Sally will not be given any priority. He also says that her wheelchair is “extra” and that she has to pay “an excess charge” of £100.
Harry and Sally are incensed but Jonah is insistent and they pay up. When it comes to boarding the aircraft, pandemonium breaks out and Harry and Sally are lucky to get on at all. Although the flight crew are sympathetic, Harry and Sally have to sit apart during the three-hour flight. The disembarkation arrangements at Lorento are singularly lacking and at one-point Sally has to go through the indignity of being carried down a set of very rickety steps by four baggage handlers.
Fortunately, Harry and Sally have a very good holiday but the return flight is equally as nightmarish and they arrive home utterly demoralised. Her initial complaints are totally ignored. She contacts a charity that specialises in advising disabled travellers. Sally is advised she can issue a small claim in the County Court but that even though her case would probably be fast tracked, in practice the process could take months. She is also advised that it is likely that Last Resort will use every single means at its disposal to delay matters and that if she is successful any court order will probably be ignored. The advisor mentions that in the past Last Resort has been willing to mediate and recommends that Sally pursues this option before issuing proceedings.
In the course of the online ASM Plus mediation which takes place a couple of weeks later Last Resort’s chief executive, Mr Stonewall attends in person in order to as he puts it, “ensure that his airline’s interests are protected.” During the brief initial joint session, he is very bullish and claims that even though Last Resort’s website makes reference to “a disabled charter”, in giving the assurances that they did, Mr Yesman and Miss Helpful were acting outside their authority and that the airline cannot be held responsible. He also makes it clear that he considers that Harry and Sally should be grateful that his airline had been prepared to transport them so cheaply to such an obscure destination. Harry and Sally make it clear they expect to receive a full apology plus compensation. Safe in the knowledge that the impartial mediator has emphasised that she expects all concerned to behave appropriately, they make it clear that they will not be intimidated by Mr Stonewall.
In the course of the private sessions that follow, Mr Stonewall concedes to the mediator that on the day of Harry and Sally’s departure, everything that could possibly go wrong at Stansted, went wrong. He accepts that in most respects Mr Yesman and Miss Helpful acted incorrectly and explains that on the day in question the Last Resort computer system was not working properly. He admits that Jonah is a new employee who despite being untrained, had being drafted into work at Stansted that day because of unforeseen staff shortages. Before then asking the mediator to tell Harry and Sally that he will give them an informal, confidential apology but nothing more, Mr Stonewall also concedes that Mr Yesman’s appraisal of the facilities at Lorento airport was “a little overstated.”
Harry and Sally are unmoved. A second open session is convened and Harry makes it abundantly clear to Stonewall that he and Sally have time on their side and that they have no qualms about going to court. Sally politely and non-threateningly explains to Mr Stonewall that if the case does go to court, she will apply for witness summonses to be served on Mr Yesman and Miss Helpful and that she will also request the production of Last Resort’s computer records.
Mr Stonewall relents. He apologises to Harry and Sally and aside from agreeing to refund the £100 charge levied by Jonah, offers them a free return flight to any destination of choice with the proviso that they choose a destination with suitable facilities. He confirms he will personally ensure that their outward and return journeys are uneventful and that they do not encounter any of the difficulties they have outlined to him.
Additionally, although he will not commit anything more to writing, Mr Stonewall indicates that he will instigate an immediate root and branch enquiry, partly into happened on the day of Harry and Sally’s outward flight but also to try and ensure that as he puts it, “there are no repeat performances”. He also says he will take up the matter with the airport authorities at Lorento.
Harry and Sally accept Mr Stonewall’s offer and subsequently select the most expensive return flight option to a large airport that they can find on Last Resort’s website.
Had this case been pursued by way of court proceedings, Harry and Sally would have had to have paid a substantial court fee. Additionally, it is likely that because of internal court delays, they would have had to wait several months before the case went to trial. At least one court attendance would have been necessary and that would have entailed additional travel and waiting time. The three-hour online mediation was arranged very quickly which meant no travelling for Sally and was convened at a time that was convenient for all parties. Harry and Sally’s share of the mediation fee was £175.00 plus VAT but this was more than offset by the terms of the mutually agreed settlement.
It would be wrong to suggest that Mr Stonewall was “happy” with the outcome but he takes the opportunity presented to carry out an investigation and ensure that his company’s processes and procedures are improved, something that may well help to forestall further claims and conceivably, adverse publicity.
Principal Director of ASM PLUS, civil/commercial, workplace, employment, family and educational mediator and trainer with a judicial/legal background. He has knowledge and expertise in dispute resolution in a wide range of areas and disciplines and mediates online.