Travel is a challenge for many people, especially those with a disability whose needs require expert help. And that’s where Fiona Donaldson takes over.
It is a niche area Fiona knows well having been in a wheelchair since she was 19, after suffering from transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord. She has also worked in the airline and travel industry for 25 years.
That helped, when a palliative care patient from Victoria wanted to make a final trip to New Zealand to see family, arranging all essential equipment to be taken 300km from Auckland and set up.
“Everything had to run smoothly,” says Fiona, “it took a lot of work. When he came back, his mum sent me an email saying they wouldn’t normally have known where to go to find someone who could sort this out.
“Before COVID struck I was in the middle of organising a trip for a man, his two sons and a support worker to go to Villers-Bretonneux, in France, for Anzac Day.
“He wanted to do the war memorial (to those who died on the Western Front in World War I) and had a large powerchair and specific needs for ventilation and oxygen.
“There was another gentleman, a regular client, who has emphysema, so he has to have a portable oxygen machine, which has to be cleared by the airline.”
Seeing the Lights
Fiona also had a client with a disability who wanted to go dog sledding, see the Northern Lights and stay in an igloo in Norway. Access to the igloo proved just too difficult.
“I deal with the medical department on the airlines. Get all the needs, all the forms, give them to clients, get them filled out. I act as a middle person with the airline,” she says.
“There’s definitely more room for error (with complex arrangements), but it’s like any clients, with a disability or not, anything can fall over at any time.
“I get a kick out of it when everything has run smoothly. I had two clients in wheelchairs last year who went to Singapore. When they came back one felt 10ft tall and bulletproof having been able to do that trip.
“I’m available 24/7 in case of a travel emergency, if something is not right. Touch wood I’ve only had one phone call, where a transfer did not turn up in Dubai.”
Working from home
Fiona started in domestic phone bookings with Qantas before moving into corporate and business travel where her clients include the Queensland Government and Southern Queensland University.
It was the latter which drew her to World Travel Professionals and working from home in Burpengary, where she has been based ever since.
Destination Accessibility began last month, but Fiona has been organising accessible travel under the name TravelManagers Australia for years.
“With TravelManagers we can have a niche offering. A market out there which we can tap into with our expertise,” says Fiona.
“I think people feel more comfortable talking to me as I know what they need,” she says, “just by making minor adjustments travel can open up.”
With overseas travel a victim to the shutdown, Fiona is currently looking at domestic holidays to such as Cairns and short trips to New Zealand. A travel operator has also been in touch from Fiji.
“There are companies are out there which have taken blinkers off, but I think there are a lot who aren’t doing enough (for those with a disability),” she says.
“There’s still a lot of room for improvement, but I do feel it is getting better. Accessible tourism and accessibility should be the expectation, not the exception.”
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