During her time as cabin crew, Ailsa Malcolm-Hutton travelled the world and took seriously the challenge of caring for passengers.
Being diagnosed five years ago with Motor Neurone Disease – the same condition to afflict late scientist Stephen Hawking – means she’ll only ever travel again as a customer.
The condition has left the mum-of-one severely disabled and unable to work, but a holiday to Tenerife promised much-needed distraction from her incurable, degenerative symptoms.
Instead, Ailsa says she found herself feeling ‘humiliated’ by her treatment on the flight – and suffering agonising injuries as a result of clumsy handling.
Ailsa, 34, has to be carried on to aircraft due to her limited mobility, and a number of airlines board passengers in her situation first.
But Ryanair board ‘special assistance’ passengers last for ‘safety reasons’ – a policy which Ailsa blames for her terrible on-flight ordeal.
She said she arrived early at Manchester Airport for her recent Tenerife flight expecting to be boarded first as she has been on the 23 previous occasions she’s flown in a wheelchair with Thomson, Virgin Atlantic, Thomas Cook and easyJet – only to learn Ryanair’s policy meant she would have to board last.
She was helped on board by handlers from the agency OCS as passengers looked on – but as the plane was full she found herself ‘pushed into rows of seats’ in the cramped conditions.
In her fragile condition the slightest knock can cause major discomfort – and Ailsa spent the flight to Tenerife wracked with pain in her arms.
“The crew didn’t even acknowledge me and it took four days for my arms and muscles to heal”, she said.
To avoid repeating her ordeal, Ailsa claims Ryanair staff promised she would be boarded first on the return leg – but she was again left until last.
“I ended up slanted on the chair so every row I was knocked about, hitting seatbelts. I was trying to tell them but nobody could hear me.
“Then, as my husband was breaking his back pulling me to the window seat, I just felt a crack. It was my rib.
“Ryanair staff just ignored me as I suffered a panic attack. I was just trying to make memories with my family unfortunately this journey was ruined. My daughter Isabella was so frightened for me. Bless her.”
Ryanair say the airport is responsible for the service she received.
Motor Neurone Disease affects the body’s nerves and muscles, eventually leaving the patient unable to move, speak, eat, swallow, and lastly breathe – while keeping full mental capacity.
For Ailsa, the condition began in her right thumb aged 28 but she was not diagnosed until 14 months later, when her daughter Isabella was six.
It meant the mum-of-one, who lives in Davyhulme with partner Dean Holmes, 33, and was employed by Monarch in her twenties, could no longer work.
Currently unable to use her legs, arms or her right hand, she is reliant on a wheelchair. Her speech is badly affected and she has ‘constant’ cramps.
The way she is handled when being moved is key because a bad experience can leave her both in pain and in stress, which worsens symptoms further.
“Travelling can be horrendous for someone with a condition like mine. But what I do know is that flying is made easier when you are boarded first – so you can be carried properly without knocking seats and without an audience – when you are looked after by cabin crew, and when you are handled with care.
“When I was cabin crew we treated people with care and respect and checked on them – regardless of their disability type.
“We used to help and use laminated safety cards as slide sheets to safely get the passenger seated or just help with bags.
“I’ve never felt so humiliated in my life. Even animals aren’t treated so poorly. This has really knocked my confidence. Stress makes my condition worse.”
Ailsa added: “MND is a death sentence with no treatment or cure. Stephen Hawking was an exception to the rule as half of patients die within two years.
“But I’ve always remained positive and have hope. I never have self-pity even though I’m in pain all the time and take more than 25 tablets on a good day.
“But a bad travel experience can really set you back.”
But there is hope – Ailsa says many airlines are getting it right, adding: “Tui have a person with reduced mobility on their committee. All airlines should have this.”
A Ryanair spokesman said passengers with reduced mobility were boarded last for safety reasons, adding: “While we regret any inconvenience caused, special assistance at Manchester and Tenerife is provided by the airports – at great expense to the airlines – and the airport is responsible for this service and any problems with it.”
A Manchester Airport spokesman, said: “We’re sorry to hear about the experience Mrs Malcolm-Hutton had when boarding her flight. We have raised the issue with OCS who provide special assistance at the airport.”
The M.E.N has contacted OCS for comment.
A spokesman from Tenerife South Airport said they had received no complaint from Ailsa and that she should register her concerns with them.
SO how do other airlines board special assistance passengers?
Ryanair: Passengers boarded last ‘for safety reasons’.
easyJet: “We’ll get you on board shortly after our Speedy Boarding customers. This does vary depending on the airport layout and the type of assistance you need.”
Virgin Atlantic: Boards special assistance passengers first ‘because they can need more space and time and if they need a hoist then it is better in terms of dignity.’
Thomas Cook: “We board first as standard – there may be an occasion this does not happen if for example passengers are late to the gate.”
Flybe: “The safety of our passengers and crew is Flybe’s number one priority at all times. Those passengers with reduced mobility who have booked special assistance are pre-boarded onto the aircraft and disembark last when they arrive at the destination.”
TUI: “All efforts will be made to accommodate the customer’s preference. Customers needing assistance will be invited to board first, unless the customer prefers it otherwise.”