Uproar in Lebanon after disabled woman banned from flight

The case of a wheelchair-bound journalist prevented from boarding her flight due to her disability has sparked backlash against the airline

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Wheelchair-bound Rula Helou, who hails from Marjayoun, south Lebanon, said she was unable to board her flight with Middle East Airlines to Cairo because of her disaiblity. She added that the airlines’ staff had also taunted her about her wheelchair.

In an interview with Al Arabiya News on Tuesday, Helou said she would file a suit against the Middle East Airlines, which has since denied her allegations.

“I won’t file a complaint but a lawsuit and my lawyer is handling the matter,” she said.

The 37-year old said she was a frequent flyer and had taken all the necessary steps for her flight on Sunday.

“I was on my way [Sunday] to a poetry-related event there [in Egypt] … I have flown before and followed all the procedures required for the flight,” she said.

The Middle East Airlines issued a statement Monday saying while booking her flight Helou had stated she could walk from her wheelchair to the plane.

“But when she arrived at the airport counter, it became [apparent] that she needed an escort to reach the plane’s seat, a matter that requires prior notification to ensure her safety and that she have a comfortable [trip],” the statement published Monday added.

The firm did however note Helou had requested assistance while booking for previous flights with the national carrier.

The firm also denied claims its staff had misbehaved toward Helou, suggesting the opposite was in fact the case.

“While expressing our respects to the feelings of Mrs. Helou, this issue should not be turned into a campaign depicting the company as heartless. [We also need] to recall the necessity of appropriate language [when dealing] with company employees,” the statement said.

Helou has denied being rude to the MEA staff.

The syndicate representing Middle East Airlines employees also dismissed Helou’s allegations, saying she was “blatantly exploiting the media … in a manner that does not reflect well on her profession.”

“Employees and workers at Middle East Airlines have never behaved with passengers in the manner Mrs. Helou attempted to portray,” the syndicate said in a statement.

The Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union has voiced its support for Helou.

“This behavior contradicts all the international laws and agreements to protect the rights of people with special needs and laws governing the tourism sector,” the union said in a statement.

It urged the MEA to apologize to Helou, warning of a potential boycott of the airlines.

In its statement Monday, MEA said it had a proven record of meeting the needs of people with special needs without any previous problems.

“The firm abides by all international laws and respects the needs of people with special needs,” it said.

“MEA provides flights for 100 people with special needs, including four to five with complete paralysis, on a daily basis without any issues arising,” the company said, adding that it had recently set up a state-of-the art center for individuals with special needs “to meet all their needs, 24/7.”

Houla’s case attracted wide media attention in Lebanon.

Privately run LBCI TV criticized the airline in its report, saying that “Middle East Airlines did not realize that taking care of disabled passengers is an obligation, not an act of benevolence.”

The broadcaster said the mistreatment of the disabled travelers by the airlines has been going on for years.

It quoted a wheel-cheer bound man named Taoufiq Allouche, saying he has boycotted the MEA for two year after receiving poor treatment from the airline.

“There was no time that I traveled with the Middle East Airlines without them telling me this: ‘You are not allowed to travel because you are alone, as if I am a minor,” Allouche told LBCI.

The daily al-Akhbar newspaper published that Houla, a woman "who has traveled the world as a journalist, today faces all discrimination and humiliation at the Middle East [Airlines]."

News website Tayyar.org, affiliated with Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, described Helou in a report as a “victim of discrimination and lack of accountability.”

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