Despite having a condition that rendered him immobile since birth, Pratyush Nalam – a software whiz graduated from IIT Mumbai – has always lived his life to the fullest. The 23-year-old suffers from spinal muscular atrophy due to which he can’t walk, and uses a motorised wheelchair to commute. All set to join Microsoft in Seattle, Nalam flew from Chennai to New York via Delhi on two Air India flights.
On February 12, when Nalam landed at the John F Kennedy international airport in New York, he was in for a shock as Air India had not transported his battery-operated wheelchair on-board. Moreover, the vehicle was held back by the security staff in New Delhi without any prior information or notification.
Hopeless and helpless, he had no other option than to be stranded at the airport and wait for his travel aid. Citing the reason that the wheelchair contained batteries that are apparently not allowed on the flight, Air India could not transport it to US. Enraged on learning that his sole support of movement had been kept away, he took to Facebook to express his discontentment with Air India’s “unprofessional” service.
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“The least you could do was to contact the passenger before the flight took off and at least confirm. Fortunately, you know, the passenger didn’t die an untimely death yet,” he wrote, adding, “That motorized wheelchair is the only way I travel from Point A to Point B. It is more than a person’s legs for me. Do you leave behind your aircraft’s landing gear because it didn’t clear security? Try to use some empathy before you take such decisions next time.”
Here’s his first post:
Several users were upset about the incident. While some posted angry comments, others went on to share similar ordeals that they had earlier faced.
Nalam was later informed by the Air India staff that his wheelchair has been loaded on the next flight and would reach him the next morning (February 13), but without its batteries.
Nalam posted an update on Facebook and wrote: “Those are dry, non-spillable, gel batteries. Perfectly allowed under domestic and international civil aviation rules. You see, as a passenger, I am careful about what is allowed and not allowed under the rules as I travel pretty often.”
Wondering if his wheelchair would reach him in one piece, he added, “This is the same Air India that damaged this very wheelchair when I flew them in August 2015 on the same sector.”
“Disabled passengers are not second class citizens. Neither are we a liability. We live fulfilling lives and the least you could do is to treat us and our equipment with dignity and respect,” he also wrote in another post to express his dismay.
Here’s what his friends and followers had to say then:
When it finally arrived in New York, the wheelchair had to be taken to a service centre to be made operational. Not just the battery, but the wire that connects it for motorised travel was also missing. Adding a fresh post to elaborate on how he got it fixed, Nalam wrote: “As my wheelchair is not sold in the United States, Mr Jeff got a set of custom wiring to be made for my wheelchair so that I can be mobile again. He took special care and treated it as an emergency and this reaffirms my faith that good people are still left in this world.”
“As for Air India,” he continued, “The long march towards justice starts now.”