Passengers who require assistance to move around the island's two major international airports will now be able to do so comfortably following the purchase of 50 new wheelchairs.
Of that number, Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston is to receive 20 by Wednesday; while the remaining 30 will be deployed to Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay.
They will replace dilapidated wheelchairs that were in use by GCG Ground, the handlers responsible for supplying and maintaining wheelchairs at the airports.
This development, which was shared by GCG Ground General Manager Shawn Bowla should bring relief to passengers who have previously complained about the deplorable state of the chairs.
Retired Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Ionie Ramsay Nelson had voiced her disgust to the Jamaica Observer last month at the unsightly chairs being used to transport passengers, including herself, from the aircraft to inside Norman Manley Airport.
SSP Ramsay Nelson, who had undergone emergency spinal cord decompression surgery following a fall while on duty, told the Observer she noticed over a three-month period that she was transported in a "tattered, torn, unsightly" wheelchair between the aircraft and the airport building each time she travelled.
On her last return trip to Jamaica, Ramsay Nelson said, "When I came out of the aircraft and I saw that it is the same old rusty-looking chair dem they came back with, mi haffi say, 'Can't you all beg Food For the Poor a couple chairs?' It's disgraceful, and the chair is uncomfortable."
She said it appeared the chairs, which are huge for her small frame, were not being maintained because she observed that the right handrest was "mere metal [with] one likkle piece of sponge still [attached]."
She also said that a piece of the chair had dislodged and was poking her in her back, so she had to get up and sit on a hard bench, which is not advisable given her condition.
The 73-year-old, who was the first woman in the Jamaica Constabulary Force's motorcycle traffic unit, said she had no choice but to use a wheelchair to get around at the airport as she was advised by her doctor not to lift or carry anything weighing more than 10 pounds.
"I am wondering what type of value they are putting on those of us who pay our money to be assisted. To this moment, I am still baffled that we can come out with something like that to put other human beings in… as a matter of fact, if they need transportation to take them to the Riverton City dump I will hire something to take it there. It is shameful," she bemoaned.
"I am embarrassed, I am ashamed and I want to remind us as Jamaicans and whoever else does business with us that the less fortunate — those of us who have challenges — they can make a special effort to make us feel special, because, for me, I worked for 40 years and almost four months as a police officer and I made it a point of my duty to be courteous, to be kind and to treat everybody like a human being," she said.
However, while admitting that there are some wheelchairs that have deteriorated, Bowla insisted that not all of them are in the condition described. He said that the less presentable ones had to be pulled out of the pool by team members during periods when passenger numbers increased.
He insisted that passengers do not understand the rigours of the operations, noting that "it is not practical to have perfection all the way through".
"You are never going to have the perfect equipment that is going to be used every day with so many passengers… but it is always checked every day for safety purposes," he said.
"All chairs go through a check. The main thing is a quality check — a safety check for the braking system and to ensure that everything like that is ready for our special needs passengers; that goes beyond appearance. Yes, I do agree appearance can send a concerned signal too, but they go through all those checks," he said.
He noted that the new wheelchairs were purchased from abroad in early October, but the shipment had been delayed.
Bowla said that during the wait period, the dilapidated wheelchairs were pulled from the operations, "so the only deficiency that we may have — and it is something with the airline — is that there may be a wait for persons whenever they check in or arrive to make sure they are only using those newer ones".
He said that in the interim, the company had been renting wheelchairs from security companies and other handlers at the airport.
"We sometimes use each other's equipment to supplement where volumes are greater in either case," he said.
GCG Ground was established in 2009 to provide a full suite of ground handling services to airlines in the Caribbean and Latin America. It operates out of both the island's international airports. The company, which is headquartered in Florida, also has locations in the US Virgin Islands, Costa Rica, St Lucia, and Barbados.
According to its website, in addition to ramp handling and passenger services, GCG Ground furnishes customised solutions for its clients, handling everything from wheelchairs to baggage. It also boasts that the company is capable of servicing more than 33,000 flights per year.