MOSCOW -- When Pavel Obiukh turned up at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport to board a plane to Kazan on February 18, he was expecting an uneventful flight. Obiukh is blind, but he had made similar trips dozens of times before, and he navigates even the Moscow metro with ease.
But staff at Russia's S7 Airlines told him he was not permitted to check in for the flight, because he did not have an accompanying passenger with him.
Obiukh works for Perspektiva, an organization that campaigns for the rights of the disabled in Russia, and spends much of his time traveling to give seminars and training to disabled people across the country.
On his usual flights, Obiukh said, "the system works like this: first you go to the check-in desk and then you go to the medical center [at the airport], where they can help you to register for check-in and take you to the plane."
But this time, he explained, "the staff at the medical center called a representative of S7 Airlines, who told me I would not be able to fly, because according to the airline's rules, a person without sight is only allowed to fly with an accompanying passenger or a guide dog."
Obiukh telephoned Perspektiva’s lawyers, who advised him to send a written note to the airline’s administration, but they continued to insist he couldn't fly.
The incident highlights the plight of millions of people in Russia who are disabled, and are treated as second-class citizens, Obiukh said.
"For me it demonstrates that in this country there are cases of discrimination against disabled people that they don’t even try to conceal," he said. "That’s to say that I was simply barred from flying because I cannot see. Never mind that I have rights, just like the next passenger."
Fighting For Change
With few job prospects, and little access to buildings and public transport, most disabled people simply stay at home -- or in institutions with little contact with the outside world, says Denise Roza, the director of Perspektiva.
But she says attitudes are beginning to change. "Unfortunately there’s still discrimination, there are still violations of disabled people’s rights," she said. "But what we’re seeing now that we didn’t see, you know, years ago, is that people in the community are...saying this is outrageous, and this has to change."
Obiukh is demanding a public apology from S7 Airlines, and has asked that the carrier changes its policy to allow disabled passengers to travel unaccompanied. S7 has refused to comment on the case, saying only that it was abiding by its own policy.
But according to Roza, "there are policies that need to be changed. Because in part, this is an issue of internal policy, but in part it’s the aviation code, which needs to be rewritten."
It isn’t the first time S7 has gotten flak for refusing passage to disabled passengers.
Natasha Prisetskaya, another Perspektiva activist and a wheelchair user, was refused boarding last year. In a rare case, she took the issue to court -- and won.
"I received compensation. I asked for 1 million rubles, but I received 50,000," Prisetskaya said. "But for me it wasn’t the money that was important; it was the fact that the court recognized my human rights and the fact that they had been abused."
Nevertheless, she says, the ruling has done little to help other passengers, including her colleague, Obiukh.
“The prosecutor-general has overseen two court cases on this issue, and he has ordered the owner of this airline to change the rules, because they contradict the constitution [of the Russian Federation], as well as many federal laws," Prisetskaya said. "But all the same, the company has not done so: they insist they have the right [to retain their own rules]. I just can’t understand it.”
For Denise Roza, however, there has been a glimmer of light in this depressing tale. After Obiukh was rejected by S7, he bought a ticket to fly on a different airline, Tatarstan Airways, and they allowed him to board without trouble.
“Not only did he get there, he was put in business class!" Roza said. "Because they also wanted to make a statement, that this is outrageous, that disabled people need to be treated like everyone else. So we’re seeing a lot of positive things and reactions that we didn’t see years ago. It’s very encouraging.”