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Air Canada apologetic after mistreatment of disabled B.C. passengers

Airline promises accelerated implementation of accessibility plan
People are shown at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Friday, March 10, 2023. Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau is apologizing for the airline’s accessibility shortfalls and rolling out new measures to improve the travel experience for hundreds of thousands of passengers living with a disability. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau has apologized for the airline’s accessibility shortfalls and announced new measures to improve the travel experience for hundreds of thousands of passengers living with a disability.

On Thursday, Rousseau said the carrier will speed up a three-year accessibility plan after a number of recent reports of passenger mistreatment, including an incident where a man with spastic cerebral palsy was forced to drag himself off of an airplane in Las Vegas due to a lack of assistance.

“Air Canada recognizes the challenges customers with disabilities encounter when they fly and accepts its responsibility to provide convenient and consistent service so that flying with us becomes easier. Sometimes we do not meet this commitment, for which we offer a sincere apology,” the chief executive said in a release.

“(W)e are committing to do better and demonstrating that commitment with concrete actions.”

The measures range from establishing a customer accessibility director to consistently boarding passengers who request lift assistance first. Air Canada also aims to implement annual, recurrent training in accessibility — such as how to use an eagle lift — for its 10,000-odd airport employees and include mobility aids in an app that can track baggage.

Heather Walkus, chairwoman of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, said the problems go beyond a single airline, extending to gaps in the law — despite a regulatory overhaul in 2020 brought on by the Accessible Canada Act.

She cited the example of a rule requiring federally regulated companies to be involved in developing policies, programs and services — a “regulation you could drive a truck through.”

“You could send the administrator down to Tim Hortons and talk to someone in a wheelchair and you’ve consulted with the disability community. It’s a checkoff,” she said. The group she heads was not contacted by Air Canada on its new accessibility blueprint, she added.

On Thursday morning, Air Canada executives sat down with Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez and Kamal Khera, minister of diversity, inclusion and persons with disabilities, after a summons from Rodriguez last week prompted by several high-profile events involving passengers with disabilities.

These included the Las Vegas incident with 50-year-old Rodney Hodgins, which triggered an investigation by the Canadian Transportation Agency. That event also prompted B.C. comedian Ryan Lachance, who has spastic quad cerebral palsy, to go public with his story of being dropped and injured by Air Canada staff while trying to exit a plane in Vancouver in May. He said crew had declined to use the lift he needs to leave his seat.

Rodriguez called the incidents “unacceptable.”

“We will be following up on the outcomes of this meeting, including before the busy holiday season, to ensure that all Canadians are treated with respect and dignity when they travel,” he said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Craig Landry, Air Canada’s chief operating officer, said the airline receives more than 700,000 requests for assistance from travellers with disabilities each year, or nearly 2,000 customers a day, underscoring the need for more reliable accessibility services.

“When customers are travelling with accessible needs, the expectation is that we’re able to comply 100 per cent of the time,” Landry said in a phone interview. “Any service failure is unacceptable.”

The revamped accessibility plan, initially announced as a three-year process in June, will cost “in the millions of dollars,” he said.

David Lepofsky, visiting research professor of disability rights at Western University’s law faculty, said that as a blind person he “dreads” flying in Canada because of unreliable service.

“The inconsistency with the quality of the ground assistance you get is appalling,” he said.

“The problem is that we’ve got airlines that systemically are not ensuring that they respect that law and obey it, and a law enforcement regime that’s fatally flawed.”

Statistics Canada found that 63 per cent of the 2.2 million people with disabilities who used federally regulated transportation in 2019 and 2020 faced a barrier.

Air Canada’s new accessibility director, Kerianne Wilson, stressed that the airline will take greater pains to protect and track electric wheelchairs and other mobility aids when they’re stored in the cargo hold.

“Their mobility aid, which we know is not luggage — it’s an extension of their body, it’s an essential part of their ability to travel and their independence — we know that providing that comfort will be so critical,” she said in an interview.

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