This week’s story concerning what happened when Air New Zealand seated a disabled person in someone else’s seat has generated a lot of comment in the social media. As is often the case, not all the comments are well informed. You can read one newspaper’s treatment of the incident here.

This week’s story concerning what happened when Air New Zealand seated a disabled person in someone else’s seat has generated a lot of comment in the social media. As is often the case, not all the comments are well informed. You can read one newspaper’s treatment of the incident here.

It does seem that Air New Zealand has been rather caught with its pants down by this incident. People with disabilities are travelling all the time these days and Air New Zealand ought to have been more onto it.

Their first problem was that when this person in a wheelchair turned up, they did not have ready access to the specialised narrow wheelchair they use to transport such people to their seats. So they couldn’t transport this person to their allocated seat. Instead, they put her in seat 1A, which is in the front row, because only the front row was available to her.

Air New Zealand’s second problem was that when another passenger turned up to sit in seat 1A, they tried to simply persuade that passenger to accept a different seat further back. Almost all the time, people would graciously comply with such a request. But it seems this passenger had either specifically booked that seat or in any case had priority to use it because she has gold elite status, and she was unwilling to give up the seat in favour of the disabled passenger.

Air New Zealand’s third problem was that there then developed an unfortunate stand-off while staff unsuccessfully tried to persuade the gold elite passenger to accept the other seat further back in the plane. As you can well imagine, this humiliated the disabled passenger who was really quite an innocent participant in the whole incident. It also caused further delay to the flight for all the passengers, while Air New Zealand ultimately found the chair they needed so they could move the disabled passenger to her correct seat. In the end, both passengers were seated in their allocated seats, but the whole incident was unfortunate, and quite unavoidable.

One interesting aspect of all of this is how divided New Zealanders have been on the issue. On the one hand, the gold elite passenger who refused to give up her seat in favour of the disabled passenger has been vilified by some with comments along the lines of “you try living without the use of your legs and see what that’s like”. On the other hand, people seem equally adamant that the gold elite passenger was fully entitled to stand up for her rights.

I’ll deal with that issue first because it seems some people are misinformed on this point. What are your rights as someone with gold elite status? I don’t fly enough to earn gold elite status, so I spent a little time trying to verify what rights come with that. It’s pretty clear that it gives you priority access to premium seating on planes, but only when the seats are available. So priority access is not an absolute right. There could be a number of different circumstances that could arise, where a gold elite passenger may not get the seat they want because it is not available. Imagine for instance if John Key or some other VIP is travelling with a couple of assistants and security people. They may very well get the front row. Or what if the airline is transporting someone as part of a medical emergency. They may need the front row for that. I’m sure people in the travel industry can think of numerous other situations where this might happen.

It is well established that a plane is ultimately under the control of its captain. Aren’t we told on every flight these days to obey instructions from the crew and it is an offense to disobey. So yes, gold elite status gives you some rights, but they are not absolute. In the end your rights may have to submit to some other set of circumstances and you need to do what you are told.

Air New Zealand says that in the end they were able to meet the needs of both passengers. But this overlooks the humiliation they caused to the disabled passenger.

So what are our rights as disabled people? The first point to make is our rights are not absolute either. Under the Human Rights Act 1993, people with disabilities can expect airlines to offer us the same travel services as are enjoyed by the rest of the public, and on the same terms. Airlines have some obligation to make special provisions for people with disabilities, but the law also does allow an airline to refuse to make a special provision for someone with a disability if it would be unreasonable to expect it to do so.

So what should have happened in this case?

First, Air New Zealand should have had more direct access to the isle wheelchair they needed so they could transport the disabled passenger to her allocated seat without delay. People with disabilities travel all the time, so all airlines must be prepared.

Secondly, if that chair is not available, or if other circumstances arise that mean they must sit someone in a seat allocated to another person, then Air New Zealand must inform the other passenger that their allocated seat is no longer available, and if necessary instruct, not persuade, the person to move to a different seat. Neither the disabled passenger nor the gold elite passenger have absolute rights, but the airline must act in a way that finds a reasonable balance. In this case if the gold elite passenger had been forced to move to another seat, the only harm to her would have been that she didn’t get to sit in her preferred seat.

It actually doesn’t matter why the seat is no longer available. As I said, there might be any number of reasons why it is no longer available. To have an argument about it in front of everyone including the disabled passenger at the centre of the issue is unacceptable. In the end, on a plane you do what you are told with no argument. You can argue about it later.

A situation like what happened this week could easily occur for a blind person travelling with a guide dog. In my experience, on the bigger planes at least, airlines are very willing to provide a spare seat so the dog has space on the floor to lie down. That is an example of a special provision that airlines can be reasonably expected to make for a person travelling with a guide dog. But imagine someone has made a mistake and there are no spare seats. In that situation, I would probably want to sit in the front row where there is enough space for the dog. But what if that meant moving a gold elite passenger out of their preferred seat? I hope you would agree it would not be fair for me to be bumped off the flight just because someone refused a request to move to another seat. The airline must strike a reasonable balance between the rights of all the passengers concerned, but they must act with authority. This could be another situation where a passenger with gold elite status might just have to accept that they cannot have their preferred seat. So is that really such a big deal?