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Airline apologizes after plane left passengers in wheelchairs on tarmac

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Liz Weir arrived at Belfast International Airport several hours early last Friday, determined not to miss her flight to Edinburgh, Scotland. The trip from Northern Ireland was just a short 30-minute hop, but Weir, a writer, was anxious to ensure she wouldn’t miss an event she was scheduled to speak at that evening.

Once at the gate, Weir, who uses a wheelchair when she travels due to a heart condition, watched as other passengers boarded the flight.

But when airport staff wheeled her and another passenger using a wheelchair from the gate onto the tarmac to board, the plane’s doors were closed and the boarding stairs were wheeled away. Weir and the staff with her waved and yelled to try to get the pilot’s attention, she said, but to no avail.

Weir could only watch as the plane taxied away from the gate and took off without her.

“I’ve just never heard of such a thing in my life,” she told The Washington Post.

Weir said staff offered her a food voucher for around $20 as she waited for the rest of the day at the airport to be rebooked onto another flight. She made it to Edinburgh at around 10 p.m., having missed her speaking engagement, and retrieved her suitcase, which had been on the flight that left without her.

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A post Weir shared on social media about her ordeal sparked outrage online. EasyJet, the British airline operating the flight, apologized for the incident in a statement and said it occurred due to a “misunderstanding by our ground handling team and crew onboard.”

“We are sorry for the impact this disruption will have had on [the passengers’] plans and are in contact with them to apologise for their experience, reimburse their flights and any expenses incurred as a result of the delay, and provide the compensation they are due,” the statement read.

Belfast International Airport declined to comment.

Passengers with disabilities have reported ordeals in the United States of having their wheelchairs damaged during flights or sent to the wrong destinations — issues prevalent enough that Congress in 2023 introduced bipartisan bills directing the Transportation Department to examine the feasibility of allowing passengers to board planes with their wheelchairs.

In her social media post, Weir said her ordeal was a case of discrimination. Weir, a writer and storyteller based near Belfast, was traveling to speak to fans and other authors in Scotland for the first time since the pandemic. Friends in the area had booked tickets and were excited to see her, she said.

Weir didn’t run into any problems at the airport and said the staff assisting her quickly got her to the gate two hours before the flight boarded. She said she didn’t think anything was amiss when the rest of the flight’s passengers boarded first. It was only when the three remaining passengers being assisted by staff — Weir, another passenger using a wheelchair and that passenger’s husband — reached the tarmac that they saw the boarding ramp being wheeled away from the plane and realized something was wrong.

“I was horrified,” Weir said.

Weir described the scene that followed as bizarre as she and other passengers, along with the airport staff accompanying them, yelled and waved at the plane, like commuters trying to flag down a leaving bus. Weir said she saw the pilot through the cockpit windows turn and appear to gesture to them as the plane was leaving.

Eventually, the airport staff took Weir and the other two passengers back inside the gate.

“I was crying,” Weir said. “I was really upset. I was so frustrated and so grossed.”

Weir said the staff accompanying her were just as astounded and apologized to her. She spent the day at the airport and finally left for Edinburgh at around 9 p.m. Weir missed her event in Edinburgh but traveled onward to Glasgow to attend a storytelling festival where artists read and perform folk tales. Weir said that the incident has, at least, become inspiration for her literary friends, who spun her ordeal into an improvised performance at the festival.

“Storytellers can always make a new story,” she laughed.

EasyJet contacted Weir to apologize and reimburse her, she said. Weir added she hopes that sharing her ordeal might help ensure she has a smoother trip home.

“If it helps anybody else, if it makes them think twice about how they treat people, I think that would be great,” Weir said.

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