Jetstar leaves 12-year-old disabled girl distraught after ‘taking her legs away’

Helen Coffey

A mother has shared a picture of her distraught daughter on Facebook after airline Jetstar made her check-in an electric wheelchair, “taking her legs away”.

Billie Fabig, a 12-year-old with an undiagnosed physical disability similar to hereditary spastic paraplegia, was flying from Sydney’s Gold Coast airport with mother Heike Fabig in March when the incident occurred.

Staff told the pair that Billie could not transport herself to the gate as there wasn’t a lift there, and would have to leave her electric wheelchair at the check-in desk.

Instead, she had to be strapped into a manual chair to prevent her from falling out for the next two hours until the flight to Launceston, Tasmania.

Billie flies on a regular basis, and her mother knew to arrive early, leaving plenty of time for the pair to get checked in and board the aircraft.

“We are regular travellers with Billie, so we have a fair bit of experience flying with an electric wheelchair,” Heike wrote in an open letter to Jetstar CEO Gareth Evans.

“We have all the necessary paperwork ready, and always arrive two hours before departure, allowing more check-in time than the recommended minimum 90 minutes for domestic flights.”

This meant Billie had to spend even longer without her usual means of getting around independently.

“Keeping in mind that we had arrived super early as a courtesy to your staff to allow a smooth check-in, this meant that Billie was in essence strapped into a chair for about two hours, as if in some type of straight jacket,” wrote her mother.

“She was absolutely distraught and petrified the entire time.”

With her daughter’s permission, Heike shared a picture of Billie in visible distress on Facebook, where it has had more than 3,000 comments and shares.

“In between her sobbing [Billie] said, ‘they literally just took my legs away’ and she requested that we take a photograph so that ‘people can see what it’s like, because they don’t understand’,” Heike wrote in the caption.

“It’s not taking her legs away, it’s taking her independence away, because the wheelchair is her legs,” Heike added in an interview with the Daily Mail.

According to Jetstar, an airline serving Australia, New Zealand and parts of Asia, there are several operational and airport constraints that mean electric wheelchairs must be checked-in at baggage drop and cannot be checked at the boarding gate.

A spokesperson told The Independent: “We take the safety and comfort of passengers who require specific assistance very seriously.

“We are looking into Ms Fabig’s and her daughter’s experience to better understand what happened.

“We appreciate their boarding was frustrating and the travel could have been smoother and we are in contact with Ms Fabig about the experience.”