‘Degraded’ wheelchair user, 15, forced to shuffle up plane stairs after British Airways lost specialist chair

A 15-year-old wheelchair user was forced to shuffle up a flight of stairs after a jet bridge broke and British Airways lost his specialist chair and spare.

Tomas Woods, a wheelchair motocross (WCMX) world champion from Preston, was on his way back from California where he had been training with his able-bodied coach, Ben Adshead, when he was made to “bum shuffle” up the internal steps leading to the upper deck floor of the Airbus A380 as the direct ramp to it was broken.

The teenager has hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome which is caused by faults in certain genes that make connective tissue weaker and result in chronic pain, joint dislocation, muscle weakness and gastroenterology issues.

The experience, on a British Airways flight from Dallas to Heathrow on 1 April, made Tomas “very frustrated” – especially when he was informed, after a two-hour wait to disembark, that his £5,000 specialist wheelchair used when boarding was lost and the airline also could not locate his spare wheelchair in the hold.

He said he was then forced to use an airport wheelchair, which he could not push himself, received little help when going to the toilet between flights, and was not updated about his chairs’ whereabouts.

Once home, he complained about the flights and threatened to go to the press – at which point the airline found his specialist wheelchair and spare and sent them to him.

Tomas has praised some members of staff who helped him during the ordeal, including a member of the cabin crew who said he should receive 10,000 Avios for the inconvenience – though he never received them and British Airways failed to respond to his complaint.

Tomas cannot attend school full-time because of his condition (PA)

Tomas said: “When we were getting on, they were like, ‘Are you sitting upstairs? Well, the jet bridge is broken. We’re going to have to change your seats, you’re going to have to wait here. You might miss your flight.’

“We didn’t have any other option and didn’t want to miss our flight, so we got on board, and we got the assistance guys to carry the wheelchair to the hold.

“And then I had to bum shuffle up and get in an aisle chair so I could go down to the economy cabin. It was pre-board so there was only us and the cabin crew, but it wasn’t brilliant, and obviously it’s a bit degrading, I suppose.

“After you spent £1,500 on a flight, the last thing you want to do is try to climb up a set of stairs – I was very frustrated.”

Tomas began using a wheelchair full-time in 2019. He experiences “daily pain”, meaning he cannot attend school full-time and wears braces to protect his ankles and wrists.

Just one year later, he started doing WCMX and in 2023 he came first at the World WCMX Championships in Coachella Valley, California.

Since winning the competition, Tomas has increased his training, and went to the largest action sports training facility in the world, Woodward West in Stallion Springs, California, with his coach from 12 March to 1 April. They returned from Bakersfield to Dallas, then to London Heathrow and finally to Manchester.

During the transatlantic flight, Tomas and his coach were upgraded to business class, and both slept comfortably.

However, upon landing in Heathrow the assistance crew did not arrive to help, and Tomas and his coach were informed the airline had not loaded his specialist wheelchair and spare wheelchair in the hold. After waiting for another half an hour, Tomas was told his wheelchairs may have been loaded after all, but in the wrong area.

“A good majority of all of the upper deck crew stayed – they didn’t want to leave until it was sorted,” Tomas explained.

“But we were told my chairs were lost and that we’d have to use the airport chair. The airport’s wheelchair is incomparable to mine – my chair has suspension and is sort of built to take anything.

“The airport wheelchair, you can’t push by yourself, you need to be pushed by someone, and it’s awkward to do anything.

“One of the members of the crew, called Joe, was absolutely brilliant – he was ringing people and doing everything he could, and he requested that we both get 10,000 Avios points.”

After finally getting off the plane, Tomas and his coach were forced to sit in pre-customs for 40 minutes as they were not allowed through without a BA customer service representative.

Once they eventually got through and got to the gate for their connecting flight, they had to wait another two hours at the end of the runway as the flight was delayed after British Airways allegedly miscalculated how many passengers would be on board.

Tomas started doing WCMX and in 2023 he came first at the World WCMX Championships in Coachella Valley, California (PA)

After arriving in Manchester, Tomas was planning to get the train home to Preston but could not take the airport’s wheelchair with him and could not push it by himself so had to get his parents to pick him up.

By the next day, Tomas had still not been updated about his wheelchairs so decided to call British Airways.

Although it retrieved his chairs, British Airways failed to give Tomas the promised 10,000 Avios and ignored all his emails regarding compensation.

A spokesperson from British Airways said: “We’re looking into this as a matter of urgency but it’s very clear from our initial investigation that we got this wrong.

“We’re sorry to our customer for the unacceptable experience and don’t underestimate the impact it will have had on him.

“We successfully carry hundreds of thousands of customers who require additional assistance each year and we work hard to provide help and support them throughout their whole journey.

“It’s extremely disheartening when things go wrong but we’re committed to learning from these incidents so we can deliver the best service possible in the future.”

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