British Columbia

Advocates, airline clash on accessible travel at House committee

Disability rights advocates and Air Canada's CEO are serving up opposing views of accessibility in the country's aviation system at a House of Commons transport committee.

Complaint statistics fail to reflect actual travel experiences, says advocate calling for stricter rules

Airplanes tails with maple leaves on a tarmac.
Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau told a House of Commons transport committee that an overwhelming majority of the 1.3 million passengers who requested special assistance last year had a positive experience. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Advocates and Air Canada's CEO served up opposing views of accessibility for air passengers at a House of Commons transport committee on Tuesday, though both sides agree that consistency remains a problem.

Michael Rousseau, who heads Canada's largest airline, told the committee an overwhelming majority of the 1.3 million passengers who requested special assistance last year had a positive experience. About 1,950 — or 0.15 per cent — filed complaints.

"We have concluded the chief issue was inconsistency," Rousseau said, citing training as the remedy.

But complaint statistics fail to reflect the travel experience of many people living with disabilities, who sometimes wait unassisted for hours or have to instruct employees on how to guide them, said disability rights advocate David Lepofsky.

"I personally have spent four hours parked at a gate waiting for a flight," said Heather Walkus, who heads the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.

"No one's come to see me. There's no way to contact anyone. I'm having to go to the washroom. I can't get something to eat," she said.

Rousseau acknowledged that the issues are "probably under-reported."

Lepofsky pushed back.

"To be able to say you're doing a good job and these are the numbers is to be shockingly out of touch with our experience," he told the transport committee.

"We heard from Air Canada today that ... the problems are few or infrequent and that really all they need is more education or training for their staff. Every single one of those statements is wrong," claimed Lepofsky, who heads the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance.

"As a blind person, I dread entering Canadian airspace."

Lepofsky called for an easily reachable hotline for travellers with disabilities at each airline, regulator-deployed "secret shoppers" who pose as passengers to assess customer service practices and curb-to-gate assistance by a single employee — rather than being "passed like a baton" by up to five workers.

Travel horror stories

Several incidents surfaced at Canadian airlines over the past year, prompting the committee hearings.

A B.C. man with cerebral palsy was forced to drag himself off an Air Canada plane in Las Vegas. Canada's chief accessibility officer Stephanie Cadieux arrived in Toronto to find the airline had left her wheelchair behind in Vancouver. Former Paralympian Sarah Morris-Probert hauled herself up WestJet aircraft stairs rather than being able to board using her wheelchair.

Under a three-year plan, Air Canada has pledged to roll out measures that range from establishing a customer accessibility director — now in place — to requiring annual training for its 10,000 frontline staff.

Earlier this year, the carrier formed an advisory committee made up of customers with disabilities and launched the "sunflower program" where a lanyard worn by travellers indicates to staff they may need assistance — the first airline in North America to do so.

It also now allows customers to track their checked mobility aids in real time with an app.

Rousseau also said Air Canada is speaking with plane-making giants Boeing Co. and Airbus SE about redesigns to ease accessibility to washrooms, particularly on narrow-body planes.

"Washrooms are not designed for use by anybody who is not in perfect physical condition, and they are certainly not wheelchair-accessible," said Liberal lawmaker Annie Koutrakis.

On Monday, the government announced a summit on air accessibility slated for May 9. 

Advocates also called for stronger deterrence actions by the Canadian Transportation Agency.

Penalties against large airlines over disabilities violations occasionally top $100,000. Earlier this year, the agency fined Air Transat $11,000 after it failed to quickly provide a suitable replacement for a passenger's mobility aid that had been lost on arrival in Venice.

The carrier's owner, Transat A.T. Inc., made $3 billion in revenue last year. Air Canada made $21.8 billion.