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NI businessman's relief as he wins legal fight with airline giant British Airways after wheelchair lost and broken

Disability rights campaigner represented himself in court

By Stephanie Bell

A disabled man has told of his relief after winning a legal fight against British Airways over the loss and damage of his wheelchair during a family holiday to the US.

In what was a modern day David and Goliath-style battle, Michael Holden from Saintfield represented himself against the international airline giant in a case that was finally settled in Downpatrick court this week.

Michael (45), a company director and disability rights campaigner, had refused an 11th hour attempt by British Airways' legal team for a financial settlement without admitting liability on the eve of the court hearing.

The company had denied they were responsible for the loss and damage of his wheelchair during a flight home from the US last year.

However, in court on Wednesday they admitted liability and agreed to pay compensation to cover costs.

Michael, who has Motor Neurone Disease, was awarded an MBE by the Queen in the New Year's Honours list for services to the disabled community in Northern Ireland and travels to Buckingham Palace next month to receive his award.

He is a member of several organisations including the Belfast Centre for Independent Living, the European Network for Independent Living in Brussels as well as being deputy chairman of a patient working group at the Royal College of GPs here in Northern Ireland.

A keen traveller, he also set up the website Trip-Ability, which is a version of TripAdvisor for disabled travellers and which now attracts online visitors from all over the world.

He insisted his case was about respect and not financial compensation, adding: "I wasn't interested in the money, I want the disabled world to be aware that the courts either supported or condemned the behaviour of airlines and the way they treat passengers with disabilities.

"Hopefully it will give others the confidence to take to task the airlines and their industry to challenge the poor customer service or at least give them the opportunity to seek a judicial review of the judgment.

"When given a court date, there are strict instructions for all evidence being used by either side to be shared with the court and with the other side at least 10 days before the court hearing.

"I did that but received nothing from BA. It was only on Tuesday night before the court hearing on Wednesday that emails began to flow from their solicitors at around 10.10pm.

"They made a financial offer but without accepting liability and with a gagging clause preventing me from speaking about it, which I turned down flatly. It wasn't about money, but about respect."

The next morning in court the company accepted that it was responsible for the loss and damage of Michael's wheelchair and a settlement was agreed.

The case arose when Michael's wheelchair went missing during a flight from Orlando to London last summer after a holiday with his wife Jennifer (45) and children Georgia (14) and Noah (11).

A regular long-haul passenger with British Airways, Michael, who is a director with the company PK Shutters, was horrified by the way the company responded to the loss of his wheelchair, which turned up destroyed a few days after his holiday.

He explained: "Going out there was no problem and coming home we flew from Orlando to London and the disability assistance was there. It was in London where it all fell apart.

"When travelling with a wheelchair you have to book assistance at the time of booking your holiday as your wheelchair is taken off you at the door of the plane and there is another wheelchair on board to take you to your seat. Your wheelchair is then put in the hold and it is the first thing that the baggage handlers see when the plane lands and they take it off and bring it to the bridge.

"When we arrived at Gatwick I was told that there was a problem and BA had booked the wrong type of assistance and I might have to wait a few minutes.

"Forty minutes later I was still waiting because they couldn't find my wheelchair."

Eventually Michael was taken off the plane and left in the airport in a wheelchair he couldn't push himself with his wife, two children and all of their luggage.

Aer Lingus was the carrier who flew the family on the final leg of their journey from London to Dublin.

They stepped in to help try and locate Michael's wheelchair and also arranged for him to be transported from the airport to his car in the long stay car park.

He added: "I got a phone call the next day from a lady at Aer Lingus who was clearly upset saying they had been given my wheelchair by BA but it was in pieces.

"She said she was very upset by it and wanted to warn me so that I wasn't shocked when it was delivered to me.

"I contacted BA who basically told me it wasn't their problem. Even though Aer Lingus were not responsible for losing or damaging my chair they decided to replace it."

Michael was measured for a new chair which cost over £4,000 and took 12 weeks to make. In the meantime, he had to hire a chair.

When he asked British Airways to cover the cost of the hire they refused, prompting him to take the matter to court.

He added: "BA was just not interested and their customer service was shocking.

"I felt I had no option but to ask a judge to decide whether I was being unreasonable or BA was being unreasonable."

Michael said winning his case against British Airways was a victory not just for disabled people, but for anyone coming up against the might of a big company.

"I had no legal team, it was just me against them and their team of solicitors and often these large companies use large solicitor firms to try and grind people down," he added.

"My case shows that when it comes to smaller cases the judicial system is here to be fair and give us a chance to fight without it costing us a fortune. I was able to do it all myself."

A British Airways spokesperson said: "We have apologised to our customer for the damage caused to his wheelchair, and we're glad the matter has now been resolved."

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