Belfast airport turns away wheelchair user due to repair kit

By Leanna Byrne

  • Published
Media caption,

A disabled man was unable to board a flight from Belfast because his wheelchair repair kit was deemed a security risk.

A disabled man was unable to board a flight from Belfast because his wheelchair repair kit was deemed a security risk.

Steve Smithers, 48, was turned away at security and missed his flight to see his sick father, who is about to start treatment for cancer.

He said staff claimed the spanners could be used to "dismantle the plane".

Belfast International Airport has apologised and will make a donation to a charity on Mr Smithers' behalf.

The repair kit, which he said was essential for wheelchair users, contains several spanners and a wheel nut.

Image source, Lisa Clydesdale
Image caption,
Mr Smithers says he has never had trouble at security with his tool kit before

"When I booked this trip, all I wanted to do was to get to see my seriously-ill father," said Mr Smithers, who is paralysed from the chest down after a motorbike accident.

"I have travelled extensively over the 11 years I have been paralysed and there have never been any problems preventing me from doing so independently."

Mr Smithers, who lives in Killinchy, County Down, has had to postpone his trip to Essex to visit his 76-year-old father Joe until the end of August, but he does not want to fly again.

'Nobody would listen'

Mr Smithers said the security gate supervisor at Belfast International Airport, near Templepatrick in County Antrim, told him he would have to put his bag with the tool kit - which also contained his catheter and diabetes medication - in the hold.

But, he said, the security supervisor also told him if he put his bag in the hold he would not have time to make it back through security in time for his flight.

Mr Smithers said when he suggested he could give the spanners to the cabin crew until landing, security said this was also not possible.

"I just wanted someone to listen to me," said Mr Smithers.

He said that he was a seasoned traveller, having travelled to Australia and the United States on his own, but has never been refused access through security before.

What is allowed through security?

  • Essential medicines even if they exceed 100ml, including inhalers and liquid foodstuffs
  • Supporting documentation - a copy of the prescription or a doctor's letter - is required
  • Security staff may open the containers to screen the liquids
  • Medical equipment if considered essential
  • Again documentation is needed and security staff will screen the equipment separately.

Source: GOV.UK

In a statement, a spokesperson for Belfast International said it acknowledged Mr Smithers had a distressing experience at the airport security search point.

"As the treatment experienced by Mr Smithers during this process fell well below standards expected from security personnel, in order to remedy this, the airport will be immediately reviewing customer service and escalation procedures with our security provider ICTS," it said.

'With dignity'

Mr Smithers said he tried to explain to security that he needed the tool kit in case his wheels broke and that he would need to adjust his wheelchair to fit a hire car he had booked for his arrival at Gatwick.

When he rang the car hire company, it confirmed there were no mechanics on site and would not be able to make the adjustments for him when he arrived.

Image source, Steve Smithers
Image caption,
Steve Smithers says he will not fly again after his experience

His partner Lisa Clydesdale, 39, said he was "literally in tears" trying to explain his predicament.

He said he had no choice but to miss his flight.

Both EasyJet and the car hire company have refunded him in full.

EasyJet also offered compensation to apologise for a delay retrieving his baggage.

Belfast International Airport contacted Mr Smithers to apologise and offer him compensation, but Ms Clydesdale said they suggested the airport donate to a disability charity instead.

"For disabled people it is not about asking for special treatment, but simply wanting the opportunity to live life as unimpaired by our disabilities as is possible, and to be allowed to do so with dignity," said Mr Smithers.

"On this occasion, it was particularly pertinent for me as this was the last opportunity I would have to see my father before he starts chemotherapy but no disabled person should have to experience this, regardless of the circumstances for their trip."