Why are Canadian Airlines Failing Passengers With Disabilities?

Spot checks by the regulator would put the airlines on notice since they could face serious consequences for failure to discharge their obligations. By Star Editorial Board
Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Sometimes sorry seems to be the easiest word.

Thanks to Air Canada’s poor treatment of passengers with disabilities, the national carrier is certainly getting good at saying it. After multiple egregious incidents, including one in which a man with cerebral palsy was forced to drag himself off a flight, Air Canada was quick to offer its “sincere” apologies.

Amid the flurry of negative publicity, Air Canada also issued a hastily crafted news release announcing “a series of measures to reduce barriers . . . for customers with disabilities.” It also acknowledged that it “sometimes” fails to meet its obligations, for which it offered “a sincere apology.” There’s that word again.

Not to be outdone, either in its shoddy treatment of disabled passengers or its displays of contrition, WestJet offered a “sincere” apology to a Paralympian who had to perform the Olympian task of lifting herself up to the plane, stair by stair, since a jet bridge wasn’t available.

Discount carrier Flair Airlines has also been doling out the apologies, including for leaving an elderly woman with a prosthetic leg at the gate and damaging a women’s wheelchair.

These incidents reveal that mistreatment of passengers with disabilities — and the perfunctory mea culpas — aren’t limited to Air Canada. Nor are they recent phenomena; “discrimination and unacceptable treatment,” as the federal transport committee recently called it, has been occurring for years, decades even.

Consequently, following a motion by NDP MP Taylor Bachrach, the party’s transport critic, the committee said that it will invite the CEOs of Air Canada and WestJet to testify. But if past is prologue, we know what to expect: “Sincere” apologies, followed by promises to improve services — in other words, the same rinse and repeat routine the airlines have been performing for years.

Clearly, more conspicuous displays of contrition aren’t going to do the trick. The only thing that will is regulatory change which, fortunately, the committee seems to understand. In addition to the CEOs, the committee plans to hear from federal Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez and Auditor General Karen Hogan, and to study the regulatory regime surrounding accessibility.

That study will no doubt find that the regulator — the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) — has consistently failed to ensure the airlines fulfill their legal and ethical duties toward passengers with disabilities. The years-long “discrimination and unacceptable treatment” of such passengers is a testament to that fact.

While the CTA stresses that its role includes “monitoring compliance with regulations,” problems with accessibility are typically handled reactively, by responding to passenger complaints. It’s up to passengers to lodge a complaint, which is then followed by a long, arduous procedure involving contact with the airline, facilitation or mediation and, ultimately, adjudication before a panel.

Most passengers have neither the emotional nor the financial means to pursue this process to the end. Many never even bother to make a complaint in the first place, and a few bypass the complaints process and approach the media, which leads to apologies and promises to do better. And the problems continue to fester.

Instead of expecting passengers to police the airlines, lawyer and disability activist David Lepofsky argues that the CTA ought to step up and proactively enforce the law itself, by conducting “regular, unannounced on-site spot audits of airlines.”

Such “secret-shopper” visits would effectively put the airlines on notice, since at any moment they could face serious consequences for failure to discharge their obligations. It would therefore be a lot more effective than simply waiting for complaints, most of which will never materialize.

It would also effectively end the need for all the “sincere” apologies. Because treating all passengers, including those with disabilities, with dignity and respect means never having to say you’re sorry.

Original at https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/why-are-canadian-airlines-failing-passengers-with-disabilities/article_1e986dd0-9869-11ee-9f22-67ec7cc8d0be.html