Mumbai, July 10, 2019: A wheelchair-bound 49-year-old, on his way to Mangalore to see a doctor for a spinal cord injury, died at the Mumbai airport on Tuesday morning after Air India did not allow him to board a flight the previous day saying it was “overbooked” and checked him into a hotel overnight, Mmumbai Mirror reported.
William Fernandes, a father of two, who worked as a nurse in Tel Aviv, had flown down especially to seek treatment for the injury as it had begun to impact his leg. His family was waiting with an ambulance at the Mangalore airport to take him to a hospital.
According to Arun Fernandes, who was William’s room-mate in Tel Aviv and travelled with him, he did not complain of any discomfort when they were leaving the hotel in the morning for the airport. “I went looking for a wheelchair at the airport for him. But by the time I came back, he had collapsed in the car,” said Arun, who also works as a nurse in Tel Aviv.
Mumbai International Airport Limited (MIAL) doctors checked William and found no pulse.
A post-mortem carried out at Cooper hospital could not conclusively state the cause of the death and the hospital has sent some samples to a lab at JJ Hospital for histopathological tests.
The family on Tuesday tried to lodge a complaint of negligence against the airline, but the formalities could not be completed till late evening because of some documents they did not have. The body will be flown to Mangalore on an Air India flight on Wednesday morning.
William, who was part of five Indian men taking care of old and infirm in Tel Aviv for the past 11 years, met with an accident sometime last year that injured his back. In the past few weeks, he began experiencing excruciating back pain and complained of partial loss of mobility in his legs.
Tests revealed he had damaged his 6th, 7th, and 8th vertebrae and would have to undergo surgery. Since the surgery was turning out to be an expensive proposition in Tel Aviv, the family decided to have it carried out in Mangalore.
Since the pain was debilitating, the family decided to take him directly to a hospital from the airport in Mangalore.
According to Arun, they landed in Mumbai at 7.30 am on Monday and their connecting Air India flight to Mangalore was at 10.25 am. “We reached the counter at 8.30 am. They checked in our bags, but kept us waiting for boarding passes,” he said.
The airline later told them that the flight was overbooked and offered to fly them to Goa, from where, it was suggested, they could take a car to Mangalore. “Given William’s condition, it was a ridiculous offer,” said Arun. Incidentally, many flights were affected on Tuesday morning as operations were suspended for 19 minutes at Mumbai airport between 9.12 am and 9.31 am due to heavy rains.
Air India on Tuesday said their records do not reflect any intimation from the passenger about a medical emergency. A spokesman said overbooking is an accepted aviation industry practice to cover for no-shows. “Only those arriving at the last moment are not allowed to board,” said a spokesman.
Arun, however, said William was in a wheelchair and that should have been reason enough for the airline to prioritise his boarding. He also said that the airline did not, at any point, ask for medical documents. Arun denied that they reached the counter late. “We landed at 7.30 am and we were at the Air India counter at 8.30 am. Our flight was at 10.25 am. How is that late?” he asked.
Kevin Rekhy, a family friend of William, said there was a clear lapse on the part of the airline. “When someone is in a wheelchair and pleading that he needs to go for a medical check up on landing, what more proof is required. Also, they reached the counter well in time. We will ask for CCTV footage. The airline has a lot to answer,” he said.