Student with disability, 23, accuses SIA of discrimination, SIA apologises for 'distress & embarrassment'

She said the entire encounter was "very humiliating and upsetting".

Hannah Martens | March 14, 2023, 01:26 PM

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A 23-year-old student, Isabella Beale, accused Singapore Airlines (SIA) of discriminating against her on separate occasions for being an amputee.

Beale is a congenital amputee without a left forearm, ABC News reported.

Seated at the emergency exit row

Beale was travelling with her family to and from Europe in January 2023 when she said she was singled out for seating next to the airplane's emergency exit.

Another family member booked the seats, ABC News wrote.

ABC News reported that during the booking process, SIA lists pregnant passengers, those under 15, those travelling with infants or those in need of "special assistance" cannot sit at the emergency exit rows.

Beale said that she did not require any assistance.

SIA's website states that a passenger occupying an emergency exit row seat must:

"Be fully able-bodied, and capable of opening and moving quickly or reaching and passing through the emergency exit doors. Passengers with reduced mobility or any disability, whether profound or partial, and passengers using portable oxygen or any other medical equipment may not purchase or be assigned an EMEX Preferred Seat as they may endanger themselves or others in the event of an emergency."

SIA detailed that passengers that are not accepted as "fully able-bodied" are:

  • Invalid, sick or infirm passengers
  • Passengers with children/infants
  • Handicapped passengers (including the blind and/or deaf)
  • Passengers who are under 15 years of age at the time of travel
  • Obese passengers
  • Pregnant women
  • Frail or elderly passengers
  • Deportees or prisoners in custody

SIA staff left her feeling humiliated

Beale claimed that a staff member left her "feeling humiliated" in front of other passengers during her flight from Australia.

"All of a sudden, an air hostess approaches me and, in quite a loud tone and quite, like frantic and rushed, she just says,'Get out, get out of that seat now, you need to get up'," Beale said to ABC News.

She shared that she was "a bit taken aback" by the situation and switched seats with her partner as she thought it was fine as long as she was not directly next to the emergency exit.

"Everyone is looking at us at this point and can overhear the conversation," she said.

The air stewardess told her she had to sit in the row behind instead.

Beale stated that she "had a little cry" as it was "such an affronting thing to happen... it was very humiliating and upsetting".

Flight from Europe back to Australia was ten times worse

Beale alleged that she faced discrimination by the staff on her return flight from Australia.

According to ABC News, she consulted with ground staff at the check-in desk to confirm where she could sit.

The staff at the check-in desk confirmed and reissued her ticket, which was still at the emergency exit row of the plane.

When she got on the plane, and it was almost time for take-off, Beale said one woman went up and demanded that Beale show the woman her ticket.

The woman told Beale she had to move, and the woman did not speak politely or acknowledge Beale as an individual, ABC News reported.

"She spoke to my partner and she spoke to my partner's mother, it felt like there was an assumption that I couldn't understand," Beale said.

When Beale asked why she had to move seats, more SIA staff boarded the plane.

ABC News reported that Beale said that two air stewardesses and two ground staff were there, as well as the entire flight watching the incident.

Beale stated that the manager pointed at her missing limb and said, "Well, the problem's obvious," and allegedly continued to repeat that in front of everyone on the flight.

"I was really upset and hurt and felt like I was being vilified for my disability in front of all of these people, and they were all in a rush and all raising their voices and yelling," Beale told ABC News.

SIA apologises for "distress or embarrassment"

In response to Mothership's queries, an SIA spokesperson apologised for the "distress or embarrassment caused by the request to move".

The spokesperson added that the cabin crew had determined that Beale did not meet the safety and regulatory requirements to be seated in the emergency exit row.

"As she would be required to assist with the operation of the exit door in the case of an emergency, she would not be able to remain seated in the exit row during taxi, take-off and landing," the spokesperson explained.

This decision could have been conveyed to Beale during check in but it was not, and SIA apologised for it. The airline also thanked Beale for agreeing with the request to move seats during taxi, take-off and landing.

In their response to ABC News, SIA said that it "takes allegations of discrimination seriously and will not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment".

SIA also stated that the crew was acting on the "potential safety issue" and their "interactions may have been rushed due to the time constraints of preparing the aircraft for departure".

Following the incident, the airline has reviewed its internal processes and taken steps to improve their communications with their customers for similar matters, the spokesperson shared.

The spokesperson also said the staff had been given further customer training after the complaint.

Beale told ABC News that her family had the extra cost of the seats in the emergency exit row refunded.

Top photos via Isabella Beale's Instagram and Unsplash