PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – The Disability Action Council (DAC) said yesterday it would conduct an investigation of Bassaka Airlines and the Cambodian Airport Management Service Ltd (CAMS) to determine whether a $240 surcharge for a wheelchair-bound passenger qualifies as discrimination under the country’s disability law.
CAMS meanwhile told Khmer Times that the woman was charged because of a “misinterpretation” of the service agreement between the airline and the airport.
The Siem Reap airport charged the passenger an extra $240 for her $45 flight from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, citing the expense of using a mechanical lift called an ‘ambulift’ to help her board and disembark from the flight.
Norinda Khek, the spokesman for CAMS, said the airline agent who checked the passenger in misinterpreted the regulations.
“CAMS’ policy at Siem Reap Airport, where the incident occurred, is to not charge airlines when an ‘ambulift’ is provided for boarding on the aircraft passengers with reduced mobility,” he said. Mr. Khek said the airline plans to refund the passenger and educate airline employees about the policy of not charging for the ambulift. “Bassaka Air and CAMS…are working on an agreement to dispel possible future misinterpretation and incident,” he said.
Victims of Overcharging
The passenger, a Sudanese woman named Rahma El Siddig Gasm Elbari Mustafa, had not told Bassaka Airlines in advance that she was disabled and required assistance to board the plane. When she arrived at the airport to check in, the airline informed her that she would have to pay an additional $240 on top of the ticket price. When the woman’s friends offered to carry her onto the plane, the airline declined for security reasons.
Ms. Rahma paid the fee, but news of the surcharge sparked outrage among activists for disabled rights in Cambodia. The nonprofit Cambodia Disabled People’s Organization (CDPO) sent a complaint to the DAC when news of the extra charge became public, saying that the airline discriminated against the passenger by charging an extra fee for her to board the plane because of her disability.
CDPO director Ngin Saorath said the fee highlights a larger problem with discrimination against disabled people in Cambodia. “We are not happy that disabled people should be forced to pay extra,” said Mr. Saorath. “People with disabilities can become victims because they have to pay the extra fee.” Ms. Rahma, who has returned to Sudan, could not be reached for comment.
The Blame Game
Bassaka Airlines, the private company that manages the airport, initially blamed CAMS for charging a fee for the ambulift required to lift Ms. Rahma onto and off the plane. Mr. Khek of CAMS, however, said the Bassaka employee who checked Ms. Rahma in misunderstood the airline’s policy. He added that the airport will educate employees to ensure this incident is not repeated.
“Bassaka Air and CAMS will reinforce information at Siem Reap Airport on the non-charge policy for the use of ambulift for passengers with reduced mobility,” he said.
The DAC sent a letter to CAMS and Bassaka requesting information about the reasons for the extra charge, and said they expect to receive the response and be able to publish the reasons for the surcharge today. “There are obligations to make things accessible to people with disabilities,” said Makara Chan Em, the director of the Disability Action Council. “But I think we cannot judge that this is a case of discrimination until we receive official information [from the airline and CAMS].”
According to Cambodia’s disability law, public spaces have to be accessible to people with disabilities, but the law makes no such requirements of private corporations. Mr. Saorath said the government should nevertheless ensure that disabled people are treated equally. “We believe that government leaders should pay attention to disabled people,” he said. “We will submit a letter to ask the government to form an inter-ministerial committee to address the issue.”
Mr. Makara did not specify what sort of penalties either company could face if the surcharge is ruled as discriminatory. He said, however, that negative reports about discrimination against handicapped people could shake investor confidence in the airline. “We could lose investors for this airline,” he cautioned.
He added that the government watchdog organization’s review of the airline’s policy on handicapped passengers will be conducted in the open. “On Tuesday, we will officially announce to the public exactly why the fee was charged,” he said. “Everything will be handled transparently.”
Though the airline has since said the surcharge was nothing but a misunderstanding, Mr. Saorath insisted that disciplinary action was necessary to protect the rights of disabled people. “We believe that if there’s no action from the government the reputation of the government will suffer,” he said. Additional reporting by Va Sonyka