Airlines Rush to Draft Obesity Seat Policy

Janice Tibbetts, Canwest News Service Published: Thursday, December 25, 2008

OTTAWA — Canada’s two largest airlines are scrambling to craft new policies defining obesity as they prepare to offer disabled passengers two seats for
the price of one.

Both WestJet Airlines Ltd. and Air Canada are considering asking disabled travellers, including the morbidly obese, to provide doctors’ notes confirming
their conditions instead of giving them extra seats based on the passengers’ own assessments.

The airlines have until Jan. 10 to finalize their plans, when they must comply with a landmark new “one person, one fare”policy on orders from the Canadian
Transportation Agency.

“Medical evidence is going to be required,” said WestJet spokeswoman Gillian Bentley.

That sits fine with Linda McKay-Panos, an obese Calgarian, who said it’s fair to have to show advance evidence “because I don’t want my butt measured at
the airport.”

WestJet, however, is thinking of going a step further and including the obese only if they have an underlying medical condition, said Ms. Bentley. That
means WestJet’s eligibility would be based on why you are fat, not how fat you are.

Ms. McKay-Panos, a human rights lawyer, said it would be discriminatory and judgmental to screen out fat people who can’t medically explain their condition
if the same rules are not applied to people with other disabilities.

“I think [WestJet] might run into some problems if they do that,” said Ms. McKay-Panos. “Are they going to do the same thing for a person in a wheelchair
by saying you need to have an underlying disease that caused you to be in the wheelchair?

“It’s not logical, the differentiation that they make. Many, many people are in wheelchairs because they didn’t take their medication or they drove too
fast or they did something stupid.”

Ms. McKay-Panos, who was born with polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder that causes obesity in about 50% of those afflicted, is expected to benefit
from the new rules regardless.

The transportation agency, in a January 2007 decision, gave Air Canada and WestJet one year to implement a policy giving disabled travellers two seats after
receiving complaints from two would-be passengers who were confined to wheelchairs and needed attendants to travel.

The airlines failed in late November to convince the Supreme Court of Canada to consider their appeal, paving the way for the implementation of the new

“I’m not aware of anywhere else in the world where this exists,” said Marc Comeau, a spokesman for the transportation agency.

The agency has left it up to the airlines to set their own eligibility rules and anyone who feels they are being unfairly treated can lodge complaints with
the agency, said Mr. Comeau.

“Air transportation is largely deregulated so generally speaking if there are issues . . . passengers are expected to attempt to resolve it directly with
the carrier,” said Mr. Comeau.

Air Canada, while it will meet the imposed deadline, is still working on who is in and who is out, said airline spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick.

The transportation agency in its ruling said that free seats don’t need to be provided to obese people who are merely uncomfortable in their seats or who
are not disabled by their size.

The airlines also do not have to make allowances for disabled people who prefer to travel with a companion for personal reasons or those who require attendants
on the ground but not in the air.

Both carriers are drafting policies to train staff on how to assess disability.

Mr. Comeau said that defining obesity is the potential sticking point.

The agency has recommended that airlines adopt a voluntary policy used by Texas-based Southwest Airlines, which gives extra seats at reduced rates to people
who are too big to lower their armrest safely and with dignity.

Mr. Comeau would not comment on whether excluding obese people who do not have a medical excuse violates the agency’s order.

The airlines are only required to accommodate the disabled on domestic flights, which was the scope of the complaints launched with the transportation agency
by Joanne Neubauer, a Victoria woman whose severe rheumatoid arthritis confines her to a wheelchair, and Eric Norman, a paraplegic from Gander, N.L., who
used to travel to Toronto for cancer treatment before his death two years ago.

Ms. McKay-Panos, executive director of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, warns airlines may have another battle on their hands when she tries
to book a ticket for a trip to the United Kingdom next summer.

“My plan is to proceed to book seats and see if I get accommodated,” she said. “The reality is when I am going somewhere someone has to sit beside me and
people don’t like that so hopefully they’ll just give me an extra seat.”

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