Virgin Blue to face discrimination suit

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Source: The West

18th June 2008, 14:42 WST

A Sydney judge has ruled that a discrimination suit against Virgin Blue's disability policy is in the public interest, and has made an order helping it to proceed.

Maurice Corcoran, president of the Federation of Disability Organisations, has joined with passenger Tom Ferguson to lodge a public interest suit in the Federal Court of Australia.

The suit follows controversy in 2006 over Virgin's Independent Travel Criteria (ITC), which Mr Corcoran and other disability support groups heavily criticised.

According to a statement of claim filed in the court, the ITC requires anyone who is unable to reach the oxygen mask, put on a life jacket, fasten a seatbelt or understand instructions to travel with a carer.

"Mr Corcoran and Mr Ferguson each claim that they are unable to comply with the ITC, and have commenced proceedings claiming that, in implementing and applying the ITC, Virgin has discriminated against them, directly and indirectly," court documents state.

Justice Annabelle Bennett this week capped costs in any judgment against Mr Ferguson at $15,000 and at $40,000 for Mr Corcoran, allowing them financial leeway to proceed with their case.

Both men had submitted that any prohibitive costs order, were they to lose, could deter them from continuing the case.

Justice Bennett said the issue was one of considerable community importance.

"The ability of disabled persons to fly with Virgin, a major commercial airline in Australia, without the extra cost of a carer raises questions of public interest beyond the private interests of the applicant," she said.

Virgin also considered the case to be of vital importance to its operations, she said.

"Virgin says that if it is not able to implement the ITC, its officers and employees will be exposed to a risk of prosecution and civil actions," Justice Bennett said.

"Further, (it claims) that its employees' and customers' safety could be compromised."

The men will call evidence in relation to travel provisions for unaccompanied minors, the regulations of other airlines, and confidential information obtained from Virgin about why the policy was adopted.

Their counsel is expected to argue that Qantas is the benchmark for the treatment of passengers with disabilities.

Virgin will call extensive evidence about the history of and use of the ITC, including amendments made in 2003, 2006 and 2007.

It will also demonstrate the vital actions passengers must be capable of undertaking, and outline staff responses to mid-air turbulence or cabin decompression and emergency aircraft evacuation, including ditching over water.

Virgin accepts Mr Ferguson cannot comply with the ITC, but is disputing the legitimacy of Mr Corcoran's claim.

Neither man is seeking personal compensation.



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