Lawmakers on Monday reprimanded Air Canada’s CEO for his “shocking” and “outrageous” failure to accommodate passengers with disabilities.
At a House of Commons committee hearing on services for Canadians with disabilities, Director General Michael Rousseau faced an avalanche of questions regarding reports of mistreatment of passengers during the last year.
Vice-president Tracy Gray cited several “shocking” incidents in 2023: “An Air Canada passenger fell on her head with an elevator and her fan was disconnected; Air Canada left Canada’s own accessibility manager’s wheelchair behind on a trans-Canada flight. …and a man was dropped and injured when Air Canada staff did not use the elevator as requested. »
In August, a man with spastic cerebral palsy was forced to drag himself off a plane for lack of help, a situation that Bloc Québécois MP Louise Chabot called “scandalous.”
When asked how Air Canada would improve its services, Rousseau replied: “We make mistakes. » But he highlighted an accelerated accessibility program announced in November, as well as new measures aimed at improving the travel experience for hundreds of thousands of passengers with disabilities.
Last week, the carrier formed an advisory committee of customers with disabilities and implemented a program in which a lanyard worn by travelers alerts staff that they might need help.
“The vast majority of customers who request accessibility assistance from Air Canada have a good experience. There are exceptions. We take responsibility for these exceptions,” said Mr. Rousseau.
Last fall, he apologized for the airline’s failures.
NDP disability inclusion critic Bonita Zarrillo suggested the gaps run deeper than occasional missteps, saying Air Canada’s corporate culture and lack of enforcement of federal law are the source of mistreatment, even after regulatory reforms over the past five years.
“I simply don’t think that cases of blatant and serious neglect and abuse of people with disabilities, whether to their physical being or to their dignity, should be taken into account. The violation of their human rights should not to be the spearhead,” she said in an interview before the hearing.
The complaints came from various corners.
In December, the Canadian Paralympic Committee, along with some para-athletes, demanded better transportation to and from competitions abroad.
The call follows repeated complaints from Paralympic athletes about damaged or broken equipment, in addition to delayed flights for Canada’s competitors trying to travel to the Parapan American Games in Chile in November.
Last month, Air Canada appealed a decision by the country’s transportation regulator that seeks to improve accessibility for travelers with disabilities. If successful, the move would negate the requirement to fully accommodate passengers whose wheelchairs are too large to fit into aircraft holds.
As part of its three-year accessibility plan, Air Canada has committed to implementing measures ranging from the creation of a director of customer accessibility to the systematic boarding of passengers who request first assistance with lifting.
The Toronto-based company also aims to implement annual and recurring accessibility training – such as how to use an eagle elevator – for its approximately 10,000 airport employees. It further plans to include mobility aids in an app to track baggage.
Parliamentarians and accessibility advocates have highlighted flaws in the Accessible Canada Act that they say allow problems to persist in areas ranging from consultation to support protocols.
Heather Walkus, who heads the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, noted a lack of detail on how to train staff. She also cited a rule requiring federally regulated businesses to involve people with disabilities in developing policies, programs and services — a “regulation you could drive a truck to.”
“You could send the administrator to Tim Hortons and talk to someone in a wheelchair and you will have consulted the disability community. It’s a detention,” she told The Canadian Press in November. The group she leads has not been contacted by Air Canada about its new accessibility plan, she said.
Alessia Di Virgilio told CBC News Network Canada tonight that she was “disappointed” by Rousseau’s testimony and said he left a lot unanswered.
Last year, CBC Walk accompanied Di Virgilio on an Air Canada round trip from Toronto to Charlottetown, where hidden cameras captured a multitude of problems. Di Virgilio agreed to let Marketplace document his journey to raise awareness of the ordeals people in wheelchairs endure when boarding flights.
Di Virgilio, who uses an electric wheelchair, had his fan disconnected and an elevator fell on his head during this trip.
“I can’t accept ‘We will 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.
Virgil said Canada tonight host Travis Dhanraj said she thought allowing passengers to bring their wheelchairs on planes would avoid a number of problems.
“Air travel remains the last mode of transportation where people with disabilities must leave their wheelchairs,” she said.
“Until we are able to get on planes with our mobility devices, sitting in our mobility devices, we will be in danger.”