Health Fitness

Passenger in wheelchair says he was left with septic injury after being removed from flight on food trolley

Warning: This story contains graphic images of an injury.

A passenger who landed at Vancouver International Airport says he almost lost his foot to a septic injury after he was left stranded on a British Airways flight for hours — and was only able to exit the plane after paramedics loaded him onto two airline food trolleys.

Geoffrey Schneiderman, 63, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, says the incident left him not only with necrotic tissue in his foot, but also with lingering trauma and anxiety about confined spaces. 

“It was as though it was happening to somebody else. There were parts of it, I remember, I was just closing my eyes knowing I am completely trapped,” he said.

“It was terror. It was just terror.”  

British Airways has not responded to a CBC News request for an interview. Vancouver’s airport said in a statement the report is “deeply concerning” and it is investigating.

Paramedics called after 2 hours

Schneiderman lives in the picturesque village of Stretton Sugwas in the U.K. On July 25, 2022 he boarded a flight from London to Vancouver to visit his family for a month-long holiday. 

Upon landing, crew members on the British Airways flight said the Vancouver airport did not have an eagle lift — a piece of equipment used to help passengers in wheelchairs safely exit aircraft. After two hours of confusion and several failed attempts to get Schneiderman off the plane, paramedics were called to assist.

When paramedics arrived, they used a clamshell backboard, a rigid stretcher that snaps in half down the middle and can be wedged under a person from either side of their body.

They slid the backboard under Schneiderman, then lifted him onto the top of two trolleys normally reserved for serving passengers food and drinks during the flight. Schneiderman’s head and legs hung off  either end. 

Because the two trolleys were not attached to each other, they slid apart as the paramedics rolled Schneiderman down the airplane aisle. His partner, who was travelling with him, watched in horror.

Geoffrey Schneiderman and his longtime partner Francisco were travelling from London to Vancouver to visit family when the incident occurred. (Submitted by Geoffrey Schneiderman)

“The carts started separating — that was the point when my partner said he nearly had a heart attack, because he could see what was happening and heard them call that the trolleys are coming apart,” said Schneiderman. 

“Food carts are just not designed to transport people.”

Once out of the plane and on the connection bridge, Schneiderman was dragged to his wheelchair. 

“They pulled from under my arms and just dragged me. My shoes came off my trousers actually started coming off,” he said. 

Schneiderman had planned a month-long holiday in Vancouver, and his family had rented a special vehicle that could accommodate his wheelchair. But he spent most of the holiday bedridden, recovering from an injury to his leg and a serious pressure sore in his foot, incurred during the hours-long attempt to remove him from the plane.

While his leg healed, the pressure sore only worsened with time, becoming septic, and almost requiring an amputation after the flesh died and became necrotic. Managing the wound and ensuring he had the treatment that would prevent him from losing his foot occupied almost all of Schneiderman’s time.

“Before, I was pretty much in the best health that I’ve been in for a long time and it just put the spokes in the wheel for absolutely everything,” he said.

“I was going to the hospital three times a week to have the dressings changed and it just took over my life completely.”

A medical report provided by Schneiderman's doctor show the progression of his injury as it turned septic. Schneiderman almost lost his foot, but has since recovered.
A medical report provided by Schneiderman’s doctor shows the progression of his injury as it turned septic. Schneiderman almost lost his foot, but has since recovered. (Submitted by Geoffrey Schneiderman)

Schneiderman said in the aftermath he also became increasingly worried about being trapped in confined spaces, including a previously beloved car that was retrofitted to his wheelchair.

“I was having panic attacks about it and panic episodes about being trapped in places,” he said. 

After months of back and forth with British Airways, the airline offered him a £500 settlement. He eventually negotiated the settlement up to £1,500, equivalent to about $2,500 Cdn. 

That amount was not enough to cover the repairs to his specialized shower commode chair, which was also seriously damaged while on the flight, or his months of medical treatment.

String of similar incidents

Schneiderman’s story is the latest in a wave of others that have highlighted how passengers in wheelchairs are treated while flying by air.

In late August, Rodney Hodgins, who has cerebral palsy, was forced to drag himself off an Air Canada flight in Las Vegas when he was told no wheelchair assistance was available. 

In early May, Ryan Lachance, a B.C.-based comedian with spastic quad cerebral palsy, was dropped and injured by Air Canada staff while attempting to disembark a flight in Vancouver, after crew declined to use an eagle lift.

In a third case, 74-year-old Phil Gilliard suffered an arm injury after WestJet staff said they didn’t know how to use an eagle lift, and attempted to hoist him out of his seat themselves. 

An aircraft of British Airways airlines is pulled by a Goldhofer pushback tractor of air service provider DNATA at Zurich airport, Switzerland April 16, 2019.  Picture taken April, 16, 2019.
British Airways eventually offered Schneiderman a settlement of 500 pounds for the incident. He eventually negotiated the settlement up to 1,500 pounds, equivalent to about $2,500 Cdn. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

Air Canada was summoned to Ottawa in November following the incidents, and announced number of changes to improve the way it treats passengers with disabilities.

Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez said the airline would have a follow-up meeting in Ottawa ahead of the busy holiday travel season. The Ministry of Transportation did not respond to a CBC News email asking whether the follow-up meeting had occurred. 

“I continue to be just shocked by the number of people who have had these horrific experiences,” said Schneiderman, who has sought therapy and has not been able to return to Vancouver since the incident.

“It’s absolutely horrifying and it just leads me to believe that we are not considered as genuine humans.” 

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