Hideto Kijima, who uses a wheelchair, had to hoist himself from the runway at a tiny airport on the resort island of Amami up to the aircraft door, after staff at Vanilla Air refused to allow his friends to carry him aboard.
Kijima, who is paralysed from the waist down, has used 200 airports in 158 countries but said this was the first time he had been refused help boarding a flight.
The 44-year-old said he had been told before the flight to Osaka that it was not equipped with lifts to carry passengers with disabilities on to the plane. Vanilla Air is a budget airline affiliated with All Nippon Airways.
A member of staff said safety regulations prohibited his friends from carrying him up the stairs and initially attempted to stop him pulling himself up the 17 steps to the plane door.
“I just had to ignore them and keep moving up, or I would not have been able to return to Osaka,” Kijima, who injured his spine while playing rugby at high school, wrote on his blog.
One of his friends pushed Kijima from behind until he reached the top of the staircase, where airline staff were waiting with a wheelchair to take him to his seat.
“I’ve never thought I would be refused to fly for not being able to walk,” he said. “It’s a human rights violation.”
Vanilla Air apologised to Kijima, who is head of the nonprofit Japan Accessible Tourism Centre, after he took his complaint to the transport ministry.
“We apologised to him for the unpleasant experience,” Vanilla spokesman Akihiro Ishikawa said. “We also explained that we are taking measures to improve our service.”
The airline said lifts were being installed at Amami airport, the only one on its 14 international and domestic routes that does not have a lift to enable wheelchair users to embark and disembark.
Vanilla Air had previously barred passengers who cannot walk unaided from boarding flights at Amami, citing the risk of accidents.
Other airlines in Japan, which will host the Paralympics in 2020, said they permitted staff to carry wheelchair-using passengers aboard when lifts were not available.