Family’s travel plans ruined over wheelchair debacle


A Brisbane woman battling muscular dystrophy has been barred from flying on a Virgin plane because her wheelchair is 1cm above the airline’s accepted height dimensions.

Emma Weatherley tried to book a trip from Brisbane to Cairns for next month on April 6 with Flight Centre, but was told the airline would not accept her motorised wheelchair height of 85cm aboard.

“I went to America in 2017 with Virgin – booked through Flight Centre – and took this exact wheelchair without any problems,” she told NCA NewsWire.

“This chair fits in the boot of my Corolla and apparently there’s not enough room on a Boeing 737. It defies logic for me.”

It comes after Virgin cancelled her trip to the United States late last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mother-of-two then got the money refunded in the way of a future travel credit and tried to book a domestic trip with her family instead, but the 40-year-old hit a curveball.

According to correspondence seen by NCA NewsWire, Flight Centre said Virgin was “unwilling to budge” on the height limit and “not willing to offer refunds on the credits”.

“The best option is to possibly go to the airport with your chair to check in, hopefully they accept it at the 85cm, but if they do not, then you would need to remove the wheels so it fits the accepted dimensions,” Ms Weatherley’s Flight Centre travel agent said in an email.

More correspondence from Virgin sent to Ms Weatherley suggested her chair “be dismantled or lowered below 84cm”.

But Ms Weatherley said her wheelchair “was not designed to be dismantled”.

“The wheels alone cost $10,000 and you would need to disassemble the motor inside them – it’s not designed for this, it will weaken the motors when they’re put back together.”

She also said hiring a manual wheelchair “was not an option”.

“I have muscular dystrophy – I don’t have the power in my arms to propel the wheels forward,” she said.

“I would literally need to get modifications done to my wheelchair to make it fit, which is ridiculous and would cost more money.”

Ms Weatherly wants a full refund of the $8500 she paid for her cancelled USA trip, rather than the travel credit she received.

“Travelling with a disability should not be made this difficult – it’s exhausting. If I can’t travel anywhere because of my wheelchairthen at least offer me a full refund.”

She said she did have travel insurance with “cancel for any reason cover”, but canned it once she accepted the flight credits.

Virgin said it did not accept electronic wheelchairs over the maximum height of 84cm for safety reasons.

If a customer’s wheelchair did not fit within the dimensions after being adjusted or disassembled they would need to travel with an alternative mobility aid – such as a manual wheelchair – which did fit within the allowable dimensions.

It’s understood Virgin provided Flight Centre with authority to provide a travel credit for the value of Ms Weatherley’s booking from Brisbane to Cairns.

Virgin Australia Group spokesman Kris Taute said: “We are working closely with the customers travel agent to resolve this case.”

Ms Weatherley’s travel agency Flight Centre confirmed it was working with Virgin on a solution.

“We have reached out to our contacts at Virgin to try and find the best possible solution however at this time, we do not have a clear response,” spokeswoman Anna Burgdorf said.

“We will continue to work with Mrs Weatherley to find the best solution for her circumstances.

“Flight Centre’s customers are incredibly to important to our business and we continue to advocate to find the best solution to any issues or concerns as they arise.”

Ms Weatherley has sought help from consumer advocate Adam Glezer’s group Travel Industry Issues.

The country’s travel industry has borne a brutal brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic after the federal government slammed international borders shut in March last year in a bid to stop the virus spreading to Australia.

Virgin collapsed into administration in April after it was no longer able to service its debts, while the pandemic forced the grounding of most of its fleet and starved the country’s second biggest airline of cash.

Deloitte stepped in to restructure Virgin, before selling it to American private investment firm Bain Capital.

Flight Centre posted a $662 million statutory loss after tax last year as a result of the pandemic, forcing the ASX-listed travel agent to close about 400 of the 740 stores it operated pre-COVID.

anthony.piovesan@news.com.au



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Arthur Zacharias: Ponzi scheme fraudster jailed


A fraudster travel agent who left clients stranded overseas has been jailed for more than three years.

Arthur Zacharias, 49, operated a Ponzi scheme and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars by defrauding the business he worked for, his clients and a former Hells Angels bike boss.

The court was told the fraudster also tried to purchase the Axis Travel agency in December 2015 with a false bank deposit receipt of $50,000.

District Court Judge Simon Stretton said Zacharias’s “serious and protracting” offending caused his victims to feel “hopelessness”, “misery”, “anger” and “frustration”.

He said Zacharias also made no attempt to pay back any money.

“Your behaviour resulted in significant trauma for a number of your victims as they realised the travel arrangements they thought had been made on their behalf had not been made,” Judge Stretton told the court on Thursday.

“Indeed, more than one was stranded in a foreign country, with you only purchasing a one-way ticket when they thought a return ticket had been purchased.

“It is clear from the facts that the significant amount of funds taken were just used by you for your own personal purposes.

“The case against you is overwhelming. Not have you nor do you intend to make any form of reparation.”

The former travel agent pleaded guilty to 19 counts of theft, two counts of deception, one count of dishonest dealing with documents, two counts of misuse of personal identification or information, and two counts of dishonest manipulation of a machine.

Zacharias’s offending occurred between July 2014 and June 2016 while he worked as a subcontractor for Axis Travel.

During that period, he was also sentenced for three counts of obtaining a financial advantage.

For his current offending, Zacharias was sentenced to five-and-a-half years imprisonment with a non-parole period of three years and two months.

Following that jail time, the fraudster will then spend a further nine months behind bars to complete the previous sentence for three counts of obtaining a financial advantage.

Under those charges, he wrongly claimed $35,211.55 through the Newstart allowance that he was not entitled to.

Outside of court, Axis Travel director Max Najar said he and the business shouldered about 55 per cent of the costs incurred by Zacharias’s offending, while 45 per cent was covered through insurance.

In a previous hearing, he said Zacharias’ crimes amounted to more than $596,894 as well as lost time and health issues.

“It would have been nice if it was a longer sentence,” he told reporters on Thursday.

“It has impacted us on our health, our clients’ health and the financial health of the business.”

Mr Najar explained his former employee’s dealings were “easily” undetected because he used false credits cards, separate phone numbers and told clients not to contact the business and deal with him directly.

“As soon as we discovered it, we dismissed him immediately … had he (not be arrested and charged) he would still be on the streets causing all the havoc in the travel industry.”



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Flight Centre CEO Graham Turner says international travel could be back by June


He’s the head of Australia’s largest travel agency.

And now, less than 24 hours after the boss of Qantas announced international travel would be back by October, Flight Centre’s boss Graham Turner has made a bold prediction that Australians will be able to fly overseas much sooner – and without needing to quarantine.

Mr Turner, who has been vocal about the impact our borders have had on the recovery of both domestic and international tourism, said there was “no reason” for state borders to stay closed, especially given the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“As long as the people who need to be protected are protected by vaccination, I think there’s no reason why we can’t start travelling,” Mr Turner told A Current Affair on Thursday, noting that once the most vulnerable get the jab, international borders should open.

RELATED: Qantas announces international travel will resume on October 31, 2021

RELATED: Qantas reveals staggering $1 billion six-month loss

“I think once people who can get sick or die get vaccinated, which should be sometime in June … there should be some international travel.”

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said at the group’s half-yearly results, in which the airline reported a $1 billion loss, that international travel would not resume until at least the end of October rather than July as previously predicted.

Mr Joyce said most of Qantas’ international routes would resume on that date, including flights to London, Singapore and Los Angeles.

Three routes – New York, Santiago and Osaka – will return at a later date, with Qantas passengers able to fly to those cities with codeshare partners in the meantime.

However, flights to New Zealand are likely to increase from July as Australia maintains its travel bubble arrangement with its trans-Tasman neighbour.

In addition, Jetstar would resume flights to all 13 of its international destinations from October 31.

Mr Turner said that once Australians are vaccinated, they shouldn’t need to quarantine upon arrival home.

“With a little bit of luck, the vaccinations will make sure … any sort of risk is absolutely minimised,” he said.

The Federal Government closed Australia’s borders to international travel in March 2020.



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Qantas to require Covid vaccine on international flights: Anti-vaxxers attack online polls


Anti-vaxxer groups are attempting to rig online polls asking the public if they agree with a Qantas Airlines policy for all international travellers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Groups with tens of thousands of followers have been urging their fans to flood Australian polls and influence the results, with overseas anti-vaxxers vowing to never visit Australia.

Anti vaccination Facebook page Reignite Democracy Australia told its 49,000 followers to vote on a poll on A Current Affair’s Instagram page, which asked “will you take the vaccine to travel internationally?”

Screenshots taken on Tuesday showed the poll results showed 89 per cent “no” and 11 per cent “yes”.

Bragging about the result, a post on the page claimed the group had helped boost the “no” response from 72 per cent to 88 per cent.

“From 72% NO a few hours ago to 88%! Take note Scott Morrison and Qantas,” a post on the group’s Facebook page said.

The group shared another link, urging their followers to keep voting on the poll via the page’s Instagram.

RELATED: Why ‘no jab, no fly’ won’t work

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“Why the hell would you want too (sic) be vaccinated for a virus that has a 99% survival rate,” one man commented on the post.

“Here is your vaccine,” another said, posting a meme with a photo of vegetables.

“Im done being polite to political criminals,” another said.

A number of comments on the post were homophobic and threatened violence against the Qantas CEO Alan Joyce.

On Tuesday morning, the page also encouraged its followers to vote on a poll posted by Channel 9’s Today Facebook page, saying “comments are far too positive … we have to change that!”

“I won’t be travelling with Quantas (sic) and it’s a person’s choice what they’ll have done medically and not the choice of globalists and their ridiculous agendas,” one person commented.

“This is all part of a planned genocide,” another said.

“Never new Qantas transported sheep,” another commented. “Wake up people you are test dummies for the government.”

RELATED: Has coronavirus made you nervous about travelling? Have your say in our poll

Qantas CEO Mr Joyce made the ‘no vaccination, no flight’ announcement in an interview with A Current Affair on Monday evening.

“We are looking at changing our terms and conditions to say for international travellers that we will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft,” Mr Joyce said.

Medical misinformation Facebook groups have also seized on a travel booking group’s decision to not sell Qantas flights due to the airline’s new vaccination policy.

UK-based Tradewinds Travel wrote on Twitter, “We have made a company decision today to not sell any @Qantas flights, even on a code share, following their announcement of no vaccination, no flight.

“There are far superior airlines with flights to Australia.

“We will apply the same criteria across the board for all airlines.”

US Facebook group “Hear This Well”, which regularly shares coronavirus misinformation to their 50,000 followers, shared the post with the caption, “Shots fired” with a celebration emoji.

The post had more than 2500 reactions and 130 comments from people supporting the travel agency’s decision.

“Bye bye Qantas … Bye bye Australia! There are much more better airlines that I could use and much better countries to visit then Australia,” one man from the US wrote.

“I guess I won’t be seeing my Aussie cousins anytime soon,” another woman wrote.

“It’s time to take a stand the mark of the beast is coming,” another said.

All of the vaccines that have showed positive results in phase three trials are yet to be approved by regulators.

Despite the tight time frame for production, companies insist they are safe due to the unprecedented global collaboration that has been achieved during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Australia, any vaccine approved for use will have to clear hurdles set by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

News.com.au has contacted Facebook for a comment.



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