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Canadian airlines apologize amid accessibility concerns

In light of recent accessibility shortfalls, Air Canada has apologized and pledged to speed up its previously announced three-year accessibility plan.

Ottawa summoned the airline last week following several events involving passengers with disabilities, including Canada’s chief accessibility officer and one man who had to drag himself off a plane in Las Vegas due to a lack of assistance.

Air Canada representatives met with the federal transport and diversity, inclusion and persons with disabilities ministers on Thursday morning.

“The first thing we told Air Canada was that was unacceptable what happened and they agree with us,” said Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez.

“We told them that they need a clear plan on the short term and long term. We’re going to meet again in December to see how things improve.”

In the meeting, Air Canada notified the ministers of its plan to introduce immediate measures that update its boarding process, training and the way mobility aids are stored, while introducing an app feature that will allow passengers to track their wheelchairs in storage.

“We just would like to apologize to any customers that we’ve let down. We know that we need to do better,” said Tom Stevens, Air Canada’s vice-president of customer experience and operation strategy.

“That accessibility plan has been built with consultation with advocacy groups, with our own customers and external consultants to ensure that we’re getting at the challenging areas that our customers need us to improve in.”

Stevens added that the airline does not provide service to customers with accessibility needs “because we have to,” but rather “because we want to.”

Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez and Diversity, Inclusion and Persons with Disabilities Minister Kamal Khera respond to questions from the media after speaking with Air Canada, Thursday, November 9, 2023 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Disability advocate Maayan Ziv said one of the biggest problems is that airlines treat mobility devices like baggage, instead of an extension of the passenger.

“There is a very big difference between losing a suitcase and losing your independence and your mobility,” said Ziv, who had her wheelchair “damaged beyond repair” during a flight last year.

“This continues to happen every single day to people with disabilities everywhere.”

Gábor Lukács, president of Air Passenger Rights, believes further protections need to be put in place across the country, including regulations that force airlines to pay a minimum fine every time a wheelchair is lost or damaged.

“Good intentions are not enough. What needs to happen is that profit has to be tied to morally good behaviour. That is the whole idea of regulatory law,” he said.

WIDESPREAD ISSUES ACROSS CANADIAN AIRLINES

Data from the Canadian Transportation Agency shows nearly 1,100 passengers have submitted accessibility complaints over the last five years, including 224 in the 2023-24 fiscal year. In total, 16 wheelchairs have been reported damaged by airlines since 2018.

Sarah Turnbull’s four-year-old daughter, Blake, has been living without the comfort of her own pediatric wheelchair for more than a month.

A rim on her wheelchair was bent, according to Turnbull, while the device was stowed away under the airplane on their WestJet flight from Regina to Toronto in early October.

It is an incident Turnbull said she was prepared for, but it is still frustrating.

“I put a wheelchair in and out of a van five or six times a day, but I don’t break a wheelchair every time we go in and out of the van,” she said.

Turnbull was flying with Blake, her two-year-old son and her parents.

Blake, who has spina bifida, which is a neural tube defect, and her grandmother, Elizabeth, both require a wheelchair. When the plane landed, Turnbull and her father went to retrieve the chairs and assemble them, while the rest of the family waited on the plane.

“The plane hostesses kept asking us to leave. Then the pilot asked us to leave the plane,” Elizabeth said.

“We had little choice but to disembark.”

The Turnbulls flew from Regina to Toronto on Oct. 4. (Courtesy of Sarah Turnbull)

Turnbull’s toddler had to walk off the plane himself, while Blake crawled down the aisle.

“They called my daughter a salamander as she was crawling, wriggling off the plane,” Turnbull said.

“I was really upset because my daughter has two medical openings on her stomach and it’s just really filthy.”

Turnbull filed a claim with WestJet, but delays on parts have the family still waiting for the wheelchair to be repaired. It is expected to be fixed in the next two weeks, she said.

In the interim, the Turnbulls were fortunate enough to source a loaner chair from a friend to allow Blake her independence. But Turnbull said not everyone is that lucky.

“You don’t have multiple backup wheelchairs when the first wheelchair already cost you like $7,000,” she said.

WestJet apologized to the family and said it is working on the claim and will cover the costs of the parts and adjustments needed for Blake’s loaner chair.

“We sincerely apologize for the handling failures the Turnbull family had while flying with WestJet. This is not the standard we aspire to deliver,” a WestJet spokesperson said in a statement emailed to CTV News.

“Upon gaining a fulsome understanding of the severity of the situation, we engaged our disability assistance team to conduct a thorough investigation and review of the incident.”

Turnbull said the incident will not prevent her and her family from flying in the future. However, the fear of having a mobility device damaged does make some wheelchair users hesitant about flying.

“Every time that I have an incident, it just adds to that overall anxiety that I experience,” Ziv said.

“Every time I get on a flight, I know that something could potentially go wrong because we just don’t have the proper infrastructure, training or systems in place to protect people like myself from experiencing the type of barriers that we do.” 



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