House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport Gets an Earful on the Recurring Unfair Accessibility Barriers Facing Air Passengers with Disabilities and a Practical Roadmap to Fix the Problem

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update United for a Barrier-Free Ontario for All People with Disabilities Website: https://www.aodaalliance.org
Email: aodafeedback@gmail.com
Twitter: @aodaalliance
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March 20, 2024

SUMMARY

On March 19, 2024, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport heard two stunningly different views about the experiences of air travellers with disabilities. We rarely get such an opportunity to speak truth to power about this:

* From 11 am to noon, Air Canada’s CEO told the Standing Committee that Air Canada is doing a good job, that complaints are few, and that most air passengers with disabilities have good experiences. Air Canada said that other airlines should follow its positive example. While there’s room for improvement, the CEO claimed that better training for their staff, now underway, is the solution.

* Over the following hour, from noon to 1 pm, The Standing Committee heard the very opposite from a panel including AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky and Heather Walkus, Chair of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD). Both painted a picture of recurring accessibility barriers suffered by too many air passengers with disabilities. David Lepofsky presented 19 concrete recommendations for desperately needed and long overdue reforms.

The Standing Committee seemed to already be convinced that reform is needed. It appears eager for specific reforms that it could recommend to the Government in its forthcoming report.

On March 19, 2024, the Canadian Press published an excellent report on these hearings, set out below. Was it a coincidence that the day before these hearings, the Federal Government announced a “summit” on the barriers facing air passengers with disabilities? On the eve of these hearings, the Canadian Press reached out to the AODA Alliance for a comment. The March 18, 2024, CP report is also set out below. Several news outlets have published either or both of these reports.

If you’d like to learn more about the AODA Alliance’s 19 reform recommendations, read the March 18, 2024, AODA Alliance brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport.

If you’d like to watch the AODA Alliance’ testimony at the Standing Committee, here are three different options, from the shortest to the longest:

1. Watch a captioned video of AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky’s 8-minute introductory testimony: https://youtu.be/6HScVwgciO0
2. Watch a 39-minute video that includes both AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky’s opening presentation and his answers to questions that Members of Parliament asked of him: https://youtu.be/T5EV5zJTDDI
3. Watch a two-hour video including Air Canada’s testimony (1 hour) followed by AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky’s and CD Chair Heather Walkus’s testimonies (1 hour). We don’t know if the House of Commons captioned it. We also don’t know how long the House of Commons will retain it online. It is the 105th meeting of the Standing Committee on Transport on March 19, 2024, posted at: https://parlvu.parl.gc.ca/XRender/en

We thank the excellent team of five volunteer law students from the Faculty of Law of the University of Western Ontario who helped with the research in preparation for the ,AODA Alliance brief, and who travelled to Ottawa to watch these public hearings from the front row.

How You Can Help

You can make a difference. Please

* Write the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport. Tell them if you support the reform recommendations in the AODA Alliance’s March 18, 2024, brief on air travel disability barriers. Let them know if you support the position that the AODA Alliance presented on March 19, 2024. Write the Standing Committee on Transport at TRAN@parl.gc.ca

Write your Member of Parliament to support the AODA Alliance’s March 19, 2024, testimony on barriers facing air passengers with disabilities.

Press your local media to cover this story.

As always, we are delighted to hear from you. Tell us what you did to help. Email us at aodafeedback@gmail.com

MORE DETAILS

CP24 March 19, 2024

Originally posted at https://www.cp24.com/news/passed-like-a-baton-advocates-air-canada-ceo-clash-on-accessible-travel-1.6813743 ‘Passed like a baton’: Advocates, Air Canada CEO clash on accessible travel
Grounded Air Canada planes sit on the tarmac at Pearson International Airport during in Toronto on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

Advocates and Air Canada’s CEO served up opposing views of on-board accessibility for passengers on Tuesday, though both sides agree that consistency remains a problem.

Michael Rousseau, who heads Canada’s largest airline, told a House of Commons transport committee an overwhelming majority of the 1.3 million passengers who requested special assistance last year had a positive experience. About 1,950 – or 0.15 per cent – filed complaints.

“This is not to minimize the number of incidents nor the serious impacts the disruptions have on the individuals involved. But it is important context that indicates, first, we do a good job and, second, more importantly, we need and we will continue to get better,” Rousseau said.

“We have concluded the chief issue was inconsistency,” he added, citing training as the remedy.

Complaint statistics fail to reflect the travel experience of many people living with disabilities, who sometimes wait unassisted for hours or have to instruct employees on how to guide them, said disability rights advocate David Lepofsky.

“I personally have spent four hours parked at a gate waiting for a flight,” said Heather Walkus, who heads the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.

“No one’s come to see me. There’s no way to contact anyone. I’m having to go to the washroom. I can’t get something to eat,” she said.

“We’re moved like luggage from one end to the other.”

Rousseau acknowledged that the issues are “probably underreported.”

Lepofsky pushed back.

“To be able to say you’re doing a good job and these are the numbers is to be shockingly out of touch with our experience,” he told the transport committee.

“We heard from Air Canada today that … the problems are few or infrequent and that really all they need is more education or training for their staff. Every single one of those statements is wrong,” claimed Lepofsky, who heads the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance.

“As a blind person, I dread entering Canadian airspace.”

Lepofsky called for an easily reachable hotline for travellers with disabilities at each airline, regulator-deployed “secret shoppers” who pose as passengers to assess customer service practices and curb-to-gate assistance by a single employee – rather than being “passed like a baton” by up to five workers.

Canada needs stricter rules and tougher enforcement to ensure consistency and accountability, the advocates said.

Multiple incidents surfaced at Canadian airlines over the past year, prompting the committee hearings.

A B.C. man with spastic cerebral palsy was forced to drag himself off of an Air Canada plane in Las Vegas. Canada’s chief accessibility officer Stephanie Cadieux arrived in Toronto to find the airline had left her wheelchair behind in Vancouver. Former Paralympian Sarah Morris-Probert hauled herself up WestJet aircraft stairs rather than being able to board using her wheelchair.

Under a three-year plan, Air Canada has pledged to roll out measures that range from establishing a customer accessibility director – now in place – to requiring annual training for its 10,000 front-line staff.

Earlier this year, the carrier formed an advisory committee made up of customers with disabilities and launched the “sunflower program” where a lanyard worn by travellers indicates to staff they may need assistance – the first airline in North America to do so.

It also now allows customers to track their checked mobility aids in real time with an app.

Rousseau said he was open to more transparent rules around reporting complaints, though he said that other aviation players should be included and any measures should be “non-punitive.”

In the United States, all complaints submitted to airlines are handed over to the federal regulator. “In Canada, we essentially have to take your word for it,” said NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach.

Rousseau also said Air Canada is speaking with plane-making giants Boeing Co. and Airbus SE about redesigns to ease accessibility to washrooms, particularly on narrow-body planes.

“Washrooms are not designed for use by anybody who is not in perfect physical condition, and they are certainly not wheelchair-accessible,” said Liberal lawmaker Annie Koutrakis.

On Monday, the government announced a summit on air accessibility slated for May 9. But Lepofsky seemed to concur with Conservative committee member Dan Muys, who questioned the point of the gathering.

“A summit is a photo op,” Lepofsky said.

Advocates also called for stronger deterrence actions by the Canadian Transportation Agency.

Penalties against large airlines over disabilities violations occasionally top $100,000. Earlier this year, the agency fined Air Transat to the tune of $11,000 after it failed to quickly provide a suitable replacement for a passenger’s mobility aid that had been lost on arrival in Venice.

Airline owner Transat A.T. Inc. took in $3 billion in revenue last year. Air Canada made $21.8 billion.

“The regulator has failed to achieve the result that we are entitled to,” Lepofsky said.

The agency pointed to a steady increase in the number of enforcement actions taken over the past four years. Penalties for all breaches, including accessibility violations, against a range of transport companies amounted to $1.34 million over the past year, up from $54,000 in 2020-21.

The problems go beyond a single airline or regulator, as “gaping holes” in the Accessible Canada Act allow problems to persist in areas ranging from consultation to assistance protocols, said Walkus – despite a regulatory overhaul in 2020 brought on by that legislation.

City News Toronto March 18, 2024

Originally posted at https://toronto.citynews.ca/2024/03/18/feds-announce-air-accessibility-summit-to-confront-unacceptable-barriers/ Feds announce air accessibility summit to confront ‘unacceptable’ barriers

Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez arrives to a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. The federal government says it will host a summit on air accessibility in May amid what it calls “completely unacceptable” barriers to Canadians living with disabilities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

By The Canadian Press

OTTAWA The federal government says it will host a summit on air accessibility in May amid what it calls “completely unacceptable” barriers to Canadians living with disabilities.

Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez says airlines have failed to meet the treatment standards that passengers with disabilities deserve, calling for more responsibility from the aviation sector.

Multiple incidents have surfaced at Canadian airlines over the past year, including when a B.C. man with spastic cerebral palsy was forced to drag himself off of an Air Canada plane in Las Vegas.

David Lepofsky, visiting research professor of disability rights at Western University, says the time for “chit-chat” has long passed and that tougher rules and enforcement are needed to ensure a dignified travel experience for all passengers.

He and other advocates argue that loopholes persist after legislative reforms in 2019, and that regulators remain reluctant to levy fines big enough to deter breaches.

The government says the accessibility summit on May 9 aims to convene representatives from industry and disability communities to discuss problems and pinpoint solutions.