'Shocking': Air Canada CEO blasted over accessibility services at House committee

Lawmakers took Air Canada's CEO to task on Monday over "shocking" and "scandalous" failures to accommodate passengers living with disabilities.

A number of Canadians with disabilities have reported mistreatment by Air Canada staff in the past year

A white man in a suit speaks into several microphones from news agencies.
Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau appeared before a House of Commons committee hearing on services for Canadians with disabilities after incidents last year that drew heavy criticism. (Bloomberg)

Lawmakers took Air Canada's CEO to task on Monday over "shocking" and "scandalous" failures to accommodate passengers living with disabilities.

At a House of Commons committee hearing on services for Canadians with disabilities, chief executive Michael Rousseau faced a barrage of questions over reports of passenger mistreatment during the past year.

Vice-chair Tracy Gray cited several "shocking" incidents from 2023: "An Air Canada passenger had a lift fall on her head and her ventilator was disconnected; Air Canada leaving Canada's own chief accessibility officer's wheelchair behind on a cross-Canada flight ... and a man was dropped and injured when Air Canada staff didn't use a lift as requested."

In August, a man with spastic cerebral palsy was forced to drag himself off an airplane due to a lack of help, a situation that Bloc Quebecois MP Louise Chabot called "scandalous."

Asked how Air Canada would improve its services, Rousseau replied, "We do make mistakes." But he pointed to an expedited accessibility scheme announced in November, along with new measures to improve the travel experience for hundreds of thousands of passengers living with a disability.

Last week, the carrier formed an advisory committee made up of customers with disabilities and laid out a program where a lanyard worn by travellers indicates to staff they may need assistance.

WATCH | Wheelchair user, dropped by Air Canada crew, calls for change:

Wheelchair user, dropped by Air Canada crew, calls for change

6 months ago
Duration 0:59
Ryan Lachance and his caregiver, Emma Proulx, say Air Canada crew need better training to keep people with disabilities safe.

"The vast majority of customers requesting accessibility help from Air Canada are having a good experience. There are exceptions. We take responsibility for those exceptions," Rousseau said.

Last fall, he apologized for the airline's failures.

NDP disability inclusion critic Bonita Zarrillo suggested the shortcomings run deeper than occasional missteps, saying Air Canada's corporate culture and a lack of federal enforcement are to blame for mistreatment, even after regulatory reforms over the past five years.

"I just don't think that it should take egregious and gross negligence stories and the harm to persons with disabilities, whether to their physical being or to their dignity. The violation of their human rights should not be the spearhead," she said in an interview ahead of the hearing.

WATCH | Couple describes 'dehumanizing' experience with Air Canada:

Man forced to drag himself off Air Canada flight vows to keep fighting for people with disabilities

6 months ago
Duration 1:40
Air Canada has apologized to a B.C. man after staff told him he would need to get to the front of the plane without any assistance. The airline has also admitted it violated Canadian disability legislation. Rodney Hodgins hopes the situation will lead to systemic change.

Complaints have come from various corners.

In December, the Canadian Paralympic Committee, along with some para athletes, demanded better transport to and from competitions abroad.

The call followed repeated complaints from Paralympic athletes of damaged or broken equipment, on top of delayed flights for competitors from Canada trying to reach the Parapan American Games in Chile in November.

Last month, Air Canada appealed a decision by the country's transport regulator that seeks to boost accessibility for travellers living with a disability. If successful, the move would overturn a requirement to fully accommodate passengers whose wheelchairs are too large to move into airplane cargo holds.

Under its three-year accessibility plan, Air Canada has pledged to roll out measures that range from establishing a customer accessibility director to consistently boarding passengers who request lift assistance first.

The Toronto-based company also aims to implement annual, recurrent training in accessibility — such as how to use an eagle lift — for its 10,000-odd airport employees. It further plans to include mobility aids in an app that can track baggage.

Parliamentarians and accessibility advocates have pointed to holes in the Accessible Canada Act they say allow problems to persist in areas ranging from consultation to assistance protocols.

Heather Walkus, who heads the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, has highlighted a lack of detail on how to train staff. She has also cited a rule requiring federally regulated companies to involve people with disabilities 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 check-off," she told The Canadian Press in November. The group she heads was not contacted by Air Canada on its new accessibility blueprint, she said.

WATCH | Hidden camera catches "traumatic" moment lift falls on passenger's head: 

Hidden camera catches ‘traumatic’ moment lift falls on passenger’s head when Air Canada staff struggle during the transfer to her wheelchair

6 months ago
Duration 1:00
Marketplace is releasing an exclusive preview of its hidden camera investigation which documented a rarely seen first-hand account of the challenges faced by those flying with a disability.

Alessia Di Virgilio told CBC News Network's Canada Tonight that she was "disappointed" by Rousseau's testimony and said he left a lot unanswered.

Last year, CBC's Marketplace accompanied Di Virgilio on a round trip with Air Canada from Toronto to Charlottetown, where hidden cameras captured a multitude of issues. Di Virgilio agreed to let Marketplace document her journey to raise awareness of the ordeal people who use wheelchairs go through when getting on flights.

Di Virgilio, who uses a power wheelchair, had her ventilator disconnected and a lift fall on her head during that trip.

"I can't accept 'We'll do better,' without seeing clear strategies and things that are in place and I haven't seen that yet," Di Virgilio said of Rousseau's testimony.

Di Virgilio told Canada Tonight host Travis Dhanraj that she thinks allowing passengers to bring their wheelchairs on planes would help avoid a number of issues.

"Air travel remains the last form of travel where people with disabilities are required to get out of their wheelchairs," she said.

"Until we are able to board airplanes with our mobility devices, sitting in our mobility devices, we are at risk."

With files from CBC News and Travis Dhanraj