Air Canada’s CEO Michael Rousseau apologized on Thursday (Nov. 9) for the airline's accessibility shortfalls following several high-profile incidents.
The airline is also taking actions that will speed up its Accessibility Plan for 2023-26, which aims to “reduce or eliminate major sources of dissatisfaction and trip disruption for customers with disabilities,” the airline said in a statement.
"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,” Rousseau said in a statement Thursday. “Sometimes we do not meet this commitment, for which we offer a sincere apology. As our customers with disabilities tell us, the most important thing is that we continuously improve in the future.”
"We are listening to them and today we are committing to do better and demonstrating that commitment with concrete actions.”
The actions come after Air Canada was summoned to Ottawa to present a plan on how it intends to treat passengers with disabilities after a string of bad press.
New processes, training
Air Canada will improve boarding and seating, provide better customer communications, introduce new processes to prevent delays or damage to mobility devices, offer more training and invest in equipment, such as lifts, said Craig Landry, executive vice-president and chief operations officer at Air Canada.
“We also intend to implement further measures as we strive to make Air Canada accessible for people managing disabilities," Landry stated.
The new policies 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 operate a lift – for its roughly 10,000 airport employees and include mobility aids in an app that can track baggage.
“Mobility aids will be stored in the aircraft cabin when possible,” the airline shared in release. “When mobility aids are stored in the cargo hold, new systems are being put in place to track them in transit, including a process to confirm mobility aids are properly loaded before departure.”
Air Canada has also created a new senior position – director, customer accessibility – to oversee the rollout.
Violations in the news
The moves come one week after Air Canada admitted it violated Canadian disability regulations in the case of 50-year-old passenger named Rodney Hodgins, a B.C. man with cerebral palsy who was forced to drag himself off a flight in Las Vegas when he was told no wheelchair was available.
The Prince George resident said he used the strength of his upper body to pull himself down an airplane aisle in August, while his wife, Deanna, held his legs, after no one from the airline’s third-party ground team was around to help, according to a report in the Canadian Press.
In another incident, Ryan Lachance, a B.C.-based comedian with spastic quad cerebral palsy, says he was dropped and injured by Air Canada staff last May after his request tor use an eagle lift – a hoist designed for use on commercial jets – was denied.
Then, last month, there was Canada’s own Chief Accessibility Officer Stephanie Cadieux, who arrived in Vancouver on an Air Canada from Toronto on Oct. 20, only to learn that the airline had left her wheelchair behind.
“This was immensely frustrating and dehumanizing – and I was furious,” Cadieux wrote in a LinkedIn post about the incident.
“I want everyone to understand that when a person’s wheelchair is lost, so is their independence, safety, mobility, and dignity. Yet, airlines do not treat these pieces of medical equipment as the essential extensions of individual’s bodies that they are. The appropriate care and attention is not given and the result is situations like the one that happened to me on Friday.”
“As it stands, the consequences for this neglect by the airlines are only felt by the person with the disability, who must fight to hold the airline accountable, often with little or no success. Airlines have to take responsibility and they have to do better.”
In a statement provided to CBC News, Air Canada said it was conducting internal reviews in all three cases.
"In each case, we reached out to these customers to apologize, listen to their concerns, and offer compensation. More important to each of them though was that we commit to improve our services so that others do not have similar experiences," the statement reads.
In June, Air Canada finalized a three-year plan to increase accessibility for both customers and employees, and said it "fully supports the federal government's Accessible Canada Act and its aim to realize a barrier-free Canada by 2040."
The plan came following a report stating that two-thirds of people with disabilities faced barriers on federally-regulated planes and trains in Canada from 2019 and 2020.
Air Canada says it has "considerable resources" to make travel accessible, and employs 180 employees in Toronto to assist with mobility.
IATA notes global improvements
Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reports that, on a global scale, there are “significant satisfaction levels” among air passengers who use special assistance services.
Releasing the results of its 2023 Global Passenger Survey (GPS) related to accessibility of air transport last month, IATA said that 80 per cent of travellers using special assistance services said their expectations were met.
“As demand for special assistance grows, we will need to find more tailored ways to meet the needs of travellers with special needs,” said Linda Ristagno, IATA’s Assistant director for external affairs. “At present, a special assistance request is almost always met with wheelchair services. But the actual requirement of the traveler may be very different.”
“The traveller may simply need help with wayfinding through crowded airports, or only have difficulty negotiating stairs, or may be totally mobile but visually impaired. We are working on ways to ensure that wheelchairs are available when needed as well as the right options for the diversity of traveller needs.”