Air Serbia and Wheelchair Users – Our Experiences and Tips
Air Serbia is the national airline, and we chose them for their relatively cheap and direct flights to and from our destinations of Stuttgart, Germany and Ljubljana, Slovenia. As Serbia is not a part of the EU, and Air Serbia is not a “European” airline, the rules are a bit different. They don’t have to follow the same regulations as in the EU, unless the flight is leaving from somewhere in the EU. As a member of IATA (International Air Transportation Association), the airline should comply with IATA Resolution 700, but I found that they don’t. Actually, it seems like no IATA member airlines really are complying with Resolution 700. Here’s a really great summary on accessibility regulations and compliance put out by the Reduced Mobility Rights advocacy organization. They actually gave me some great advice on how to deal with the issues I faced in communication with Air Serbia.
Air Serbia was a chore to deal with, and it was difficult to communicate effectively with their support center both before and after purchasing tickets. I called before our ticket purchase to try to get approval for Michael’s electric wheelchair on the respective aircrafts and the staff told me they couldn’t give me that information until we purchased a ticket. Then, they also couldn’t guarantee that if the wheelchair was not approved, that we would be able to get a refund. I was given some strange information that I could make a reservation online without having to purchase anything, and then they would be able to approve or deny the wheelchair, at which time I could happily purchase tickets. Of course, this isn’t true; one must purchase plane tickets, and then the part about a reservation has to do with stating special needs related to accessibility needs transferring into the plane, which in any case, never costs anything. In the end, I just looked up the aircraft for our chosen flights and referenced the hold dimensions myself with this handy reference by wheelchairtravel.org. Ultimately, I purchased tickets without any guarantees from Air Serbia. Of course, the wheelchair was accepted for both flights without any problem.
In any case, if you use Air Serbia and have accessibility needs, be prepared for the following:
1) Not Quite Helpful Call Center
Although the call center staff do speak English, they do not speak it perfectly and may not respond appropriately or completely to emailed inquiries. Additionally, they may be resistant to providing an adequate solution over the phone. One call center staff person repeatedly tried ending the call before there was a resolution and even before I had finished the discussion. She was vague and noncommittal in her responses and unwilling to be helpful. On the other hand, on another occasion, I spoke with a different employee, and she was somewhat helpful, though it took lots of clarifying and explaining to make sure we understood each other. My emails, however, never received a satisfactory response, which is to say that they never addressed the actual questions that I had.
2) Communication Hurdles to Use Electric Wheelchair Until Boarding
It’s Air Serbia’s policy to check all electric wheelchairs at check-in and transfer you to a push chair. They actual do have a special chair for people with extra positioning needs. It is narrower, and fully padded with a somewhat higher backrest than the standard, collapsible manual wheelchair. There is no headrest, however. So if you are like us, and a manual wheelchair just doesn’t work for your situation, be prepared to do a lot of communication in order to get permission to use your electric wheelchair up until boarding; be persistent and firm. Don’t waste your time, however, with more than one attempt to get approval by calling the call center. They can’t give that permission anyways and will have to defer to others for an answer. For this reason, if you call, they will most likely ask that you email your request to them.
If you are not able to secure permission via the call center, call the airport(s) directly. Before you can get approval to use it through to the gate, you should already have approval that your wheelchair has been accepted for the flight itself. The airport representative you speak to may additionally refer you to speak with the on-site Air Serbia staff, who, unlike the call center personnel, is physically located in the airport. When I called the airports directly, I was able to quickly get a resolution.
And on that note, get it in writing. I was unable to secure written confirmation, and we ran into an hour and a half-long delay at check-in at the Nikola Tesla airport in Belgrade. Beg, cajole, whatever you have to do, to get the decision written in an email, with the name(s) of the people you spoke with. Without this proof, your life may be quite difficult when you check in later. In Belgrade, our check-in staff person herself (employed by the airport, not by Air Serbia) told us that the airline has problems with communication, which is the source of all the run-around that you may need to do.
3) Unnecessary Requests for Medical Clearance Form
Air Serbia may request that you fill out a MEDIF, which is not a requirement for wheelchair users per EU, US, EASA, and IATA rules. If you feel that the airline is wrongly requesting yout to submit a MEDIF, then you will have to decide whether to push back or give in. I, personally, pointed out via email that IATA Resolution 700 says that wheelchair users are not required to fill out a MEDIF. I did not fill it out, and they did not request it when we checked in. But you will have to make your own decision about how to deal with this, if it comes up.
4) Two Piece Limit for Free, Checked Mobility Equipment
As stated on their website, you may check two pieces of mobility equipment free of charge. This could be a wheelchair and a shower chair, for example. If you want to take any other accessibility or medical equipment on free of charge in addition to your hand luggage, you need prior approval from the airline, or you’ll have to pay for it as standard baggage.
5) Checked Baggage Twice as Expensive at Airport
And, not related to accessibility, but somewhat related to #4, make sure to have all checked baggage, in excess of the two pieces of mobility equipment, paid for beforehand. If you don’t, it will only cause delays. We had this issue and learned the hard way. Baggage is also twice as expensive to pay for in person at the airport as compared to online when purchasing your ticket or as an add-on that you purchase later, online, at least a few hours before checking in.
6) Disabled Passengers Don’t Need to Pay for Certain Extras
When purchasing tickets online, it will say that you need to pay extra for checking in at the airport, rather than online check-in, and that you need to pay to choose your seat. For people with a disability who have extra needs, these extra charges don’t apply. Simply skip these options and communicate with the airline about your seating needs … which leads to #7.
7) Check Your Seating Assignment and Check Again
Requesting appropriate seating goes for all airlines, and we usually request a bulkhead seat. But many Air Serbia planes are quite small and don’t have a bulkhead. Make sure to state your seating needs up front, by email, after purchasing your tickets — for example, if you need an aisle seat. Then check again when you arrive at the airport. I completely forgot to do this, and we ended up in a row with a fixed armrest. Not the end of the world, but life would’ve been easier if the armrest could have been raised.
In any case, you can certainly choose to fly with another airline.
Nikola Tesla Airport Review
Nikola Tesla airport in Belgrade, in and of itself, is a lovely, smallish airport. Check-in staff for Air Serbia are employed by the airport and not the airline. Everyone was helpful and kind, even with the major communication issues about Michael taking his own wheelchair to the gate until boarding. The staff person assigned to help us get to the gate was very friendly and helpful. Terminals are tiny, and security at the terminal is fast and simple to get through.
Make sure to change your Serbian Dinars back to your home currency before going through security, as there is no other way to do it once inside your terminal.
As far as bathrooms, there may be a stand-alone accessible bathroom, but there wasn’t one inside of the international terminal. We ended up using an accessible stall inside the men’s bathroom, and it was quite large and also had a sink inside. This was very convenient for us. Unfortunately, we had no time to check out any of the rest of the airport, due to the check-in delay, but we did pass many restaurants and shops and saw that bathrooms were plentiful.