Color & Control:

Airlines’ Treatment of Disabled Passengers is Horrifying  

Our Word By Peter Tonge

Airline travel is stressful for anyone, especially for a person with a disability. A disabled traveller has the usual concerns, such as scheduling and connections, plus additional concerns about the safety of their mobility equipment. 

Worldwide, airlines have a poor record for safely transporting mobility equipment. The Canadian Transportation Agency, the federal air travel regulator has received 247 wheelchair-related air accessibility formal complaints over the last five years, a small portion of the acts of poor service.

The situation is similar in the United States. The Washington Post has reported that the largest U.S. airlines lost or damaged at least 15,425 mobility devices (wheelchairs or scooters) between late 2018 and June 2021. 

In my opinion, the airlines treat mobility devices like luggage. If equipment is damaged, you are sent to the lost and/or damaged baggage department to complete a form, as if it was a missing suitcase, rather than a vital piece of medical equipment. Disabled passengers and their mobility devices are treated like inconvenient, oversized luggage. It seems there is no more concern over a wheelchair than a lost bag.

For the disabled traveller, this means arriving without the one piece of equipment that keeps them mobile, comfortable, safe and independent. For the non-disabled traveller, it is the equivalent of having the airline break both of your legs during your flight. Unfortunately, I’ve learned this from experience. During my travels, I’ve had my wheelchair damaged countless times by various airlines. This includes one incident on an Air Canada flight, where my wheelchair was damaged beyond repair. It was replaced, but the entire process took more than four months to resolve. This incident had a serious impact on my physical and mental health. 

The treatment of disabled passengers came into focus about a year ago when an airline damaged a $30,000 power wheelchair beyond repair. Carla Qualtrough then, federal minister of disability inclusion, responded: “We have to figure out a way to end this once and for all. I promise you, we’re on it.”

Yet disabled people continue to have dehumanizing experiences. Three shocking cases were recently reported, all involving Air Canada. The Chief Accessibility Officer of Canada arrived in Vancouver while her wheelchair remained in Toronto. Another wheelchair user was forced to drag himself off an airplane. Rodney Hodgins was left “humiliated” and “angry”. Similarly, Ryan Lachance was dropped and injured while being transferred by airline staff.

These incidents prompted Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez to summon Air Canada officials to Ottawa. Minister Rodriquez said he was “horrified” by the incidents. Rodriquez has called on Air Canada to present a comprehensive plan for serving disabled passengers. Adding that airlines will be held accountable.

For years, the disability community has been calling for airlines worldwide to provide a safer system for transporting mobility equipment—particularly wheelchairs and scooters.

A safer system, we believe, would require that mobility devices be placed in a safety container, before being put into the hold of an aircraft. Better yet, aircraft should be configured so that passengers can remain in their wheelchairs. This eliminates the need for perilous transfers and reduces the likelihood of equipment damage, leaving the passenger seated safely and comfortably.

Following the meeting, CEO Michael Rousseau said in a statement: “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.”

This is the first time Air Canada has publicly accepted responsibility for the poor experiences of disabled passengers. This rings hollow. Calls for the respectful and dignified treatment have been repeated for years. The calls have been answered with performative apologies and limited action.

Providing an accessible service, grounded in dignity and respect, is good business. If that principle is not enough to bring meaningful change, perhaps stronger regulation, including stiff penalties for noncompliance, is the only solution.

Whichever solution is chosen, all airlines have a lot of work ahead to regain the trust of disabled passengers. 

Peter Tonge is an accessibility advocate and Principal of Peter Tonge Consulting. He lives in Winnipeg.

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