At the time of making my booking to fly in June 2019 I put in a request for Special Assistance. I use a battery operated motorized wheelchair.A few months later Special Assistance emailed me requesting more information about the wheelchair. And so it continue...for the next 6 months. Five different staff members in the Special Assistance department all asking the same questions.
We even sent them the manufacturer's operators manual, including all wheelchair specifications and battery power needed to operate it. We took photographs, answered the same questions over and over again.
Three days before we were due to fly Special Assistance contacted us to say we could not take the wheelchair with us.
Really??!! Six months and five staff members we get told the wheelchair batteries exceed the IATA standard for watt hours.
Nonsense. There are two batteries that operate the wheelchair. Together these batteries exceed the 300 watt hours allowed.
However, if they are separated then both batteries fall way below the 300wh allowed.
The irony is I couldn't take the wheelchair on the flight but I could carry a spare battery of...300watt hours power!!!
We had bags made to ensure the batteries were unable to touch, had a separate case for the joystick, so there was no possible way the wheelchair could ever suddenly start operating whilst in the hold. In addition the wheelchair has plastic caps that are placed over any terminals that are open when the batteries and control arm are removed.
My husband phoned the UK Special Assistance offices and was told because the batteries exceeded the IATA allowance we could not travel with the wheelchair. We had only booked our visit to the UK to attend my nieces wedding, all the plans surrounding the wedding venue and reception had been made with me using my wheelchair in mind, and now 3 days before we are due to fly we are told we cannot take the wheelchair.
Only when my husband pointed out that we had been answering all of the same questions over and over since January 2019 and none of the five staff members gave us any nuance of an idea there would be a problem (one even said I could take the wheelchair right to the door of the aircraft!), did the lady say she would allow us one battery in the cabin hand luggage and the other in the hold. Which to us had all along been the intention so as not to exceed the 300wh battery allowance onboard.
And so it came time for us to return to South Africa. We had a letter for the lady at Special Assistance saying we could fly with one battery in the hold and the other onboard, both in their bags we had had made.
The lady at check in said she had never booked a wheelchair onboard before and so followed us being bombarded with questions from three Virgin Atlantic staff, one saying she needed to let the ground crew know, the other saying something over her shoulder to us as she walked away from us. After my husband was asked to put the 30kg wheelchair on the scale twice, both times unaided whilst two Virgin staff looked on, and much rechecking of the form that had to accompany my wheelchair, we were then told to go and find the Special Assistance desk ‘upstairs'. We had to ask two different Heathrow staff members where it was. Once we were registered there we were eventually assigned a team member to help us through the security and passport controls. Usually at the time of check in the lady behind the counter would call for a Special Assistance team member to come and help us. Perhaps this is not Virgin Atlantic's definition of Assistance.
As we were approaching the boarding gate our Assistance lady informed us both our passports had to be rescanned. Then to our huge surprise, there was a ground crew member standing with the battery that had been in the wheelchair in his hands! The ground crew were not happy with it being in the wheelchair so had gone into our wheelchair bag and removed the battery from the wheelchair. Thy had also taken the bag containing the control arm out of the wheelchair Bag.
The flight crew were shocked to see us boarding with an open battery and we had to explain the ground crew weren't happy. The battery was stowed in its own overhead locker with our hand luggage. So there we were, forced to take both batteries and the control arm, which had all been securely packaged with no possible way of being activated, onboard and thus exceed the IATA standards. The Flight Manager asked to take a photo of the battery to show the Captain. She never came back to us so we sat anxiously waiting to hear if the battery would be allowed to travel with us. Only when the aircraft began to taxi did we know that the pilot was comfortable having the battery onboard.
I have flown with other airlines and taken my wheelchair with me many times and this is by far the worst experience I have ever had!!!
Virgin Atlantic, you really need to improve the communication between your operating departments, at check in, onboard and with the ground crew and, perhaps most importantly, with your passengers.