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Air Canada makes changes after passengers with disabilities share ‘dehumanizing’ experiences

Air Canada says it's changing its protocols to improve the way it treats passengers with disabilities after several high-profile incidents led to a meeting with politicians in Ottawa on Thursday.

Head of airline met with federal transport minister in Ottawa on Thursday

A white man in a suit speaks into several microphones from news agencies.

Air Canada says it's apologizing and making a number of changes internally to improve the way it treats passengers with disabilities after several high-profile incidents — including one involving a passenger who had to drag himself off a plane — led to a meeting with federal ministers in Ottawa this week.

The airline said Thursday it will be fast-tracking a plan to update the boarding process and changing the way it stores mobility aids like wheelchairs to ensure customers with disabilities can get on and off the plane safely, as well as updating its training procedures for thousands of employees.

"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. Sometimes we do not meet this commitment, for which we offer a sincere apology," CEO Michael Rousseau wrote in a statement.

"As our customers with disabilities tell us, the most important thing is that we continuously improve in the future."

The changes come after four people with disabilities spoke publicly this year about their "dehumanizing" experiences flying with Air Canada. Their stories included experiences of dragging themselves off a plane, being dropped by staff, having their wheelchair left behind and having their ventilator bumped and disconnected during a transfer between wheelchairs — ordeals that advocates have described as all too familiar.

Rodney Hodgins, who has cerebral palsy, was forced to drag himself off an Air Canada flight in Las Vegas in August after being told wheelchair assistance wasn't available.

B.C.-based comedian Ryan Lachance, who has quad spastic cerebral palsy, said he was dropped and injured by Air Canada staff while attempting to disembark a flight in Vancouver in May.

WATCH | Hodgins describes ordeal after Air Canada failed to provide wheelchair assistance:

Couple describes 'dehumanizing' experience with Air Canada

13 days ago

Duration 1:04

Featured VideoRodney Hodgins says he was forced to drag himself off an Air Canada flight after the airline failed to provide the wheelchair assistance he requires.

Last month, Stephanie Cadieux, Canada's chief accessibility officer, said the airline left her wheelchair in Toronto when she flew back to Vancouver.

Toronto's Alessia Di Virgilio, who uses a power wheelchair, had her ventilator disconnected and a lift fall on her head as Air Canada staff struggled to transfer her between the aircraft and her wheelchair during a recent flight to Charlottetown.

Air Canada CEO meets with minister

Federal Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez summoned airline representatives to Parliament Hill this week to "present a plan" to address its treatment toward customers with disabilities.

Rousseau was present at the meeting on Thursday, along with Air Canada vice-presidents.

In media scrums after the meeting, Rodriguez said he told Rousseau the airline's current plan "wasn't working."

"We told Air Canada it was unacceptable what happened, and they agreed with us," he said.

"We made that very clear to their CEO," said Kamal Khera, diversity, inclusion and persons with disabilities minister, who also attended the meeting. "Not only do airlines need to be held accountable, they need to do a lot better, and they need to put forward a comprehensive plan in the short term and the long term."

Rodriguez and Khera said they'll be meeting with Air Canada again in December.

A man in a wheelchair, holding a cat, and a woman pose for a picture.

In the statement afterward, Air Canada provided more details of an accessibility program first introduced in June. It said it will be accelerating a plan to ensure people who request lift assistance will be consistently boarded first and "proactively seated" at the front of the cabin they booked.

The company also said mobility aids, like wheelchairs, will be stored in the aircraft cabin "when possible." If aids have to be stored beneath the aircraft, the company said it is creating a new tracking system that will include a process to confirm the aids are actually on the plane before it takes off.

"Customers travelling within Canada will be able to track the journey of their mobility aid using the Air Canada app," it said.

Employees will be now be trained annually to better serve people with disabilities, including training on how to properly lift a person who needs help. The airline also has a new senior position to ensure the plan is rolled out properly.

WATCH | Hidden camera catches "traumatic" moment lift falls on passenger's head when Air Canada staff struggle during the transfer to her wheelchair:

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

3 days ago

Duration 1:00

Featured VideoMarketplace 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.

Tom Stevens, VP of customer experience at Air Canada, said over 2,000 people who require mobility assistance travel with the airline every day, most of them without incident.

"We know we need to get accessible travel right 100 per cent of the time. What we've announced today is the first step on this journey," he said.

"We know even a single service failure is a service failure too many."

Stevens said Air Canada is "accelerating the first step of measures, which we think will get at the vast majority of situations."

'It's a start'

Lachance, who was dropped and injured by Air Canada staff earlier this year, said the changes are "common sense" moves that should have been implemented years ago.

"It's a start," he said.

"They're not only putting me at risk, they're putting their own staff at risk," Lachance said, adding that while he welcomes the announcement, he'll be watching to see whether the policies change the situation for travellers with disabilites.

"When I can show up on a plane and not have to hold my breath, not worry I'm going to get dropped or my wheelchair will get damaged, I"ll feel a lot better," he said.

"I'm sad it had to come to the point where people got hurt and went through a traumatic experiences for this to happen."

Maayan Ziv, founder of the AccessNow mobile app, won an award on Tuesday night.

Maayan Ziv, a Toronto-based disability advocate and the founder of Access Now, a social enterprise that shares accessibility information, was also cautiously optimistic. In September 2022, Ziv's wheelchair was severely damaged on an Air Canada flight to Tel Aviv, driving her to push for change.

"Today was the first time that we heard any type of acknowledgement or accountability, any type of apology, and although vague, it's the beginning of hopefully much more," she said.

Despite the changes, Ziv worries the onus will still be on passengers to document, report, and prove their experience in order for an airline to provide compensation or be held accountable.

"I think until we see serious penalties that reflect the catastrophic and life-altering experiences that people with disabilities face, we'll still hear stories like mine and countless others," she said.

"I think that Air Canada has violated the trust of disabled passengers and it's going to take a lot more than promises and statements to prove that they can earn our loyalty as passengers."

The Canadian Transportation Agency, which regulates air travel in Canada, received 197 complaints about accessibility during the 2022-2023 reporting period. Data showed 54 of those complaints were related to mobility aids, while 46 were related to problems with extra assistance.

In total, the agency has received 975 complaints about accessibility since 2018 — nearly 200 each year.

According to Statistics Canada, 63 per cent of the 2.2 million people with disabilities who used federally regulated transportation between 2019 and 2020 face some form of barrier.

In August, the airline was fined $50,000 for failing "to provide a temporary replacement mobility aid that met the mobility needs of a person with a disability who did not retain their mobility aid during their flight and which was not made available to the person at their arrival."

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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