‘Shocking’: Air Canada CEO blasted over accessibility services at House committee

Lawmakers took Air Canada’s CEO to task on Monday over “shocking” and failures to accommodate passengers living with disabilities.

At a House of Commons committee hearing on services for Canadians with disabilities, chief executive Michael Rousseau faced a barrage of questions over reports of passenger mistreatment in the past year.

Conservative vice-chair Tracy Gray cited several incidents she deemed shocking: “An Air Canada passenger had a lift fall on her head and her ventilator was disconnected; Air Canada leaving Canada’s own chief accessibility officer’s wheelchair behind on a cross-Canada flight … and a man was dropped and injured when Air Canada staff didn’t use a lift as requested.”

In August, a man with spastic cerebral palsy was forced to drag himself off of an airplane due to a lack of help, a situation Bloc Québécois MP Louise Chabot called “scandalous.”

Asked by NDP disability inclusion critic Bonita Zarrillo whether he’d ever had to crawl down the aisle or exit on a catering cart — in reference to recent stories — he replied, “No, of course not.”

“We do make mistakes,” he said.

Rousseau pointed to an expedited accessibility scheme announced in November along with new measures to improve the travel experience for hundreds of thousands of passengers living with a disability.

Last week, the carrier formed an advisory committee made up of customers with disabilities and laid out a program where a lanyard worn by travellers indicates to staff they may need assistance.

“The vast majority of customers requesting accessibility help from Air Canada are having a good experience. There are exceptions. We take responsibility for those exceptions,” Rousseau said.

He apologized last fall for the airline’s failures around accessible air travel.

Zarrillo suggested the shortcomings run deeper than occasional missteps, saying Air Canada’s “corporate culture” and a lack of federal enforcement account for the mistreatment, even after regulatory reforms in the past five years.

Others suggested the legislation itself needs further overhauls.

Conservative MP Rosemarie Falk pressed Rousseau on whether the airline was in compliance with all regulations after he initially replied, “I can’t respond to that question at this point in time.”

Once he’d landed on a yes, Falk said the airline’s accessibility problems amid stated compliance with the law would suggest “major flaws” in the Accessible Canada Act, passed in 2019.

However, Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos argued the issue appeared to lie more with day-to-day implementation than with regulations or C-suite priorities.

He cited Jeff Preston, an associate professor of disability studies at King’s University College, who wrote that Air Canada has up-to-date accessibility frameworks, but that “none of these policies are being adequately downstreamed from corporate/legal to the front line.”

Rousseau had a comparable view: “The chief issue is inconsistency.”

Complaints have come from various corners.

In December, the Canadian Paralympic Committee along with some para athletes demanded better transport to and from competitions abroad.

The call followed repeated complaints from Paralympic athletes of damaged or broken equipment, on top of delayed flights for competitors from Canada trying to reach the Parapan American Games in Chile in November.

Last month, Air Canada appealed a decision by the country’s transport regulator that seeks to boost accessibility for travellers living with a disability. If successful, the move would overturn a requirement to fully accommodate passengers whose wheelchairs are too large to move into airplane cargo holds.

Under its three-year accessibility plan, Air Canada has pledged to roll out measures that range from establishing a customer accessibility director to consistently boarding passengers who request lift assistance first.

The Montreal-based company also aims to implement annual, recurrent training in accessibility – such as how to use an eagle lift – for its 10,000-odd airport employees. It further plans to include mobility aids in an app that can track baggage.

“We have high awareness, a strong work ethic and deep empathy among our employees and contractors,” Rousseau said.

Flight delays — a persistent snag at Air Canada, which ranked last in on-time performance last year out of 10 large North American carriers — affect people living with disabilities more, he acknowledged. He said the company’s latest measures aim to “help alleviate that concern.”

Accessibility advocates have pointed to holes in the Accessible Canada Act they say allow problems to persist in areas ranging from consultation to assistance protocols.

Heather Walkus, who heads the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, has highlighted a lack of detail on how to train staff. She has also cited a rule requiring federally regulated companies to involve people with disabilities in developing policies, programs and services — a “regulation you could drive a truck through.”

“You could send the administrator down to Tim Hortons and talk to someone in a wheelchair and you’ve consulted with the disability community. It’s a check-off,” she told The Canadian Press in November. The group she heads was not contacted by Air Canada on its new accessibility blueprint, she said.

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