Accessibility in Canadian aviation is once again making headlines after a parliamentary committee on Monday (Nov. 20) revealed that it will investigate two of Canada’s largest airlines.
The federal transport committee is launching a study that will look at the state of accessible transportation for Canadians living with disabilities, as well as the policies that regulate it, the Canadian Press reports.
The move was prompted by NDP lawmaker Taylor Bachrach, who put forward a motion that takes a closer look at air passenger mistreatment.
The committee cited recent news reports of air travellers “facing discrimination and unacceptable treatment'' on board planes, and invited the CEOs of Air Canada and WestJet to testify along with Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez, Auditor General Karen Hogan and others.
The motion calls on Ottawa to table a response to a committee report slated to be presented to the House of Commons.
The update follows several high-profile incidents that have exposed some of the accessibility shortfalls in Canada’s air travel system.
Earlier this month, 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 another incident, in May of this year, Ryan Lachance, a B.C.-based comedian with spastic quad cerebral palsy, says he was dropped and injured by Air Canada staff after his request to 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.
Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau has since apologized for the airline’s shortcomings, vowing to improve the passenger experience.
The airline, this month, announced that it will speed up its Accessibility Plan for 2023-26, and implemente new measures for passengers with disabilities, such as improving the boarding and seating process, providing better communication, introducing new procedures to prevent delays or damage to mobility devices, offering more training and investing in equipment, such as lifts.
"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 on Nov. 9.
“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.”
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.”