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Man forced to cancel trip to see sick father after airport confiscate wheelchair equipment

A wheelchair-bound Co Down man was forced to cancel a trip to visit his sick father when a set of spanners – essential for travelling with his wheelchair – were confiscated at Belfast International Airport.

Steve Smithers was due to travel to London Gatwick from Aldergrove on Saturday morning, however, his carefully planned trip was scuppered when he was told he could not bring his wheelchair spanners on board his flight.

According to his partner Lisa Clydesdale, from Banbridge, Steve was told they were too dangerous, and that he could not take them through security in case he “tried to dismantle the plane”.

Steve persevered onto the gate, desperate to connect to see his father, but when he realised his onward journey to Essex would be impossible without the spanners, he was forced to concede and return home.

Lisa, speaking to Armagh I, said Steve was going to visit his elderly father after finding out, earlier this week, that his father’s cancer has spread to his bones, and that this might be the last chance for him to see him before he starts chemotherapy.

“He was travelling from Belfast to London Gatwick, where he had a hire care booked, so he could complete his journey into Essex,” Lisa explained.

“I dropped him at the airport this morning at 11am; the flight was scheduled for departure at 12.30pm. By the time I had made it back home, which is about an hour’s drive away, he was on the phone in tears asking me to come and collect him again.

“Steve realised he would be unable to travel safely independently without these spanners so when he called the car hire company [in London] they confirmed to him that because it was a weekend there would be no mechanics there to provide spanners to replace his.”

She added: “This meant that not only is he at risk of being stranded in his chair should it need repair or adjustment, but that even if he made it to Gatwick, he wouldn’t be able to continue his journey from there.

“So he was kept waiting while all of the other passengers boarded before he was allowed to leave the airport and go back through security.”

Lisa claims the Airport said there would be no issue had Steve put the spanners in his hold luggage, however, doing this would have provided him with further complications.

“There are two points to consider in response to that,” said Lisa. “The security supervisor told Steve when he took the kit that it was too late for them to be checked into hold luggage. And secondly, the spanners could not go into hold alone so he would have had to check-in his hand luggage which also included key medical equipment he could need during the flight, such as his medications and catheters.”

Lisa said there was no effort on the part of the Airport to offer any help or solutions to Steve.

“There was no chance to explain or reason with them at all; he was simply stone walled,” she said.

Adding: “By the time Steve got to the gate (without the spanners) he was told by the Special Assistance and cabin crew that had they been asked to look after the spanners for the flight they would have been happy to do so.

“But of course by that time it was too late, the spanners had been confiscated and there wasn’t sufficient time before departure to get them back for him to make the flight.”

Continuing, Lisa said: “By this point he was so distressed and upset you have a 48-year-old man in a wheelchair in tears because he can’t get to see his sick father.

“Had this happened to someone less experienced in travelling in a chair, more recently injured or less confident, this could put them off travel for life and severely restrict their personal freedom and right to travel.

“Even Steve, who has been in a chair for 11 years and travelled the world as a wheelie, has had his confidence severely knocked and is talking about driving in future rather than flying.”

Lisa, who drove back to the airport to pick Steve up, said he was on phone to his dad and “they were both upset to point of tears”.

Armagh I has contacted Belfast International Airport for comment.

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