Air New Zealand offers apology to Wellington Saints chairman Justin Toebes over distressing experience

Wellington Saints chairman Justin Toebes, centre, with head coach Kevin Braswell, left, and team manager Phil Hartley ...

Wellington Saints chairman Justin Toebes, centre, with head coach Kevin Braswell, left, and team manager Phil Hartley after the team's final home game of season on Sunday.

Air New Zealand says it has apologised to dying Wellington Saints chairman Justin Toebes for his distressing experience trying to board a flight.

The Wellington lawyer, who is 2.03 metres (6ft 8in) tall, is confined to a motorised wheelchair as he has motor neurone disease, which is progressively worsening.

He said he had been put off flying with the airline because of his recent experience when trying to board a flight from Auckland to Wellington - and so would miss his last chance to see Saints play in the National Basketball League finals in Invercargill this weekend.

"I can't walk, I can't stand and they had no support. I got to Auckland domestic, to the plane, in my chair and they said I had to make other arrangements - they couldn't take me.

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"Two of the crew members offered to carry me in, but the lady said it was a health and safety issue, they couldn't have the crew help me. Thankfully two of the men in the crew eventually overruled that person and helped me to my seat, but it was terrible."

Thirty six hours after being asked questions about Toebes' experience, Air NZ has replied, saying it has contacted him and apologised.

It said his most recent booking was made via a travel agent.

"Our Customer Care team was in contact with the agent who made the booking in advance to outline the assistance options available on both his international and domestic flights and advised that should the customer be unable to evacuate his seat in an emergency, a safety assistant was required to travel with him," Air NZ spokeswoman Kelly Kilgour said.

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"It was agreed between our Customer Care team and the agent that on his domestic flight we would use a special lifting device that can transfer customers from an aisle chair into their seat.  Unfortunately we were unaware of this customer's height and didn't have a suitable sized sling available on the day to safely transfer him without the help of a safety assistant. Only our smaller sling for completing the transfer was available which would have been unsafe to use."

"We have been in touch with Mr Toebes to apologise for his recent experience and to discuss potential travel to Invercargill this weekend. 

"Should he wish to travel, our Customer Care Team will do everything possible to ensure a seamless journey.  This trip from Wellington involves travel on our smaller turbo-prop aircraft and our ground staff would take Mr Toebes up to the aircraft on a specialised hydraulic lifting device.  A safety assistant would then be required to travel with Mr Toebes to lift and transfer him to and from his seat if this is his preferred method of transfer. Alternatively our staff are trained to perform a slide transfer from the aisle chair into the aircraft seat with the help of the safety assistant.

Kilgour said the airline had a range of services available for customers with wheelchairs and offered various levels of assistance depending on the level of mobility the customer has, "in line with legislation and global best practice".

Toebes, 61, has been involved with the Saints as treasurer, president or chairman since 1992, but was diagnosed with motor neurone disease three years ago. With the progressive disorder, nerve cells controlling muscles degenerate and die.

He was given four years to live, meaning this year is probably going to be his last chance to watch the Saints play.

They have qualified for the NBL finals, which will be played in Invercargill this Friday and Saturday.

He said on Monday Air NZ "doesn't make the airports have a system in place for people like me - I'm tall and big, six foot eight - to assist me as a wheelchair passenger.

"I know a lot of people use wheelchairs and Air New Zealand is supporting the Paralympics, but I was distressed that I had this issue with getting on the Air New Zealand planes."

Toebes was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the most recent New Year's honours for services to basketball.

He could not be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday night.

 - Stuff

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