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Report on the National Air Accessibility Summit

By Lee Pigeau


“People with disabilities are accommodating the airlines, not the other way around." 

Maayan Ziv, Founder of AccessNow.

 

AEBC has been working hard to ensure that blind and partially sighted travellers have a great experience “from curb to cloud” when travelling in Canada by air. I attended the Air Accessibility Summit in late April, and recently, Dean Steacy, the Chair of our Advocacy Committee, had a personal follow-up meeting with Todd Peterson, the Director of Regulatory Affairs at WestJet.


At the summit, approximately 75 people were invited. About 30 were disability advocates, the rest were from the air travel industry including airlines, their associations, airport associations, unions, and a large number of federal government employees as well as the Minister of Transport and The Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Persons with Disabilities of Canada.


The summit received considerable media attention, and there has been much discussion in our Members' group.


Myself, Michael Gottheil, Canada’s Accessibility Commissioner (who is blind), and Robert Fenton, Chair of CNIB, well represented our sector. Michael and Robert participated in panel discussions during the day and reinforced all the points our members and the advocacy committee brought to me in advance.


There were several stories told that have been in the media about broken or lost wheelchairs and humiliating experiences for people requiring accommodations. Still, many more stories haven’t reached the press, weren’t raised, and will most likely be familiar to many of you. Stories of being ignored and forgotten, being treated like children, having to pay to get a doctor’s note for accommodations, and even some people being detained or threatened with arrest because of their neurodiversity or lack of communication (from a person who is deaf) which got them flagged by security.


There were stories of seats for guide dogs being sold, forcing blind passengers to move seats and have their guide dog in a cramped position or in the aisle where the dog kept having to move and be disturbed.


According to WestJet, in 2023, it ran 260,000 flights carrying passengers using wheelchairs or other mobility equipment. Of those flights, 200 resulted in complaints, and 390 accessibility devices had to be repaired, CTV News reported. The airlines saw this as a good thing because of the “low” numbers, but it can also be interpreted that they damaged a wheelchair or other device at least once a day!


Dean reinforced a number of the issues in his meeting with Mr. Petersen, specifically the difficulty of filling out forms, navigating WestJet's complicated website, and roadblocks from uninformed employees on their phone lines.


Mr. Petersen acknowledged all of these concerns and, according to Dean, seemed sincere when he agreed to follow up with the right people on his team.


At the summit, all the Airline Executives were agreeable but mostly kept a low profile and only jumped in to say, “we do that,” when it suited them.


The most telling part for me was hearing from he union representatives about working conditions, rules that contradict common sense, contracted services not being accountable, lousy behaviour from passengers, and the need to hire more people.


Many noted that a wheelchair was considered a panacea, no matter the disability. Of the 250,000 flights involving accessibility requests, 90% are mobility support requests such as a wheelchair. More older people are travelling, and this is part of the result. There was considerable push back from the entire audience when this statistic was used as a rationale for how people are treated. This ableist mindset was pointed out as a big part of the problem.


Everyone said that things had gotten worse since the pandemic.


The summit progressed well throughout the day, and I will say that the Minister of Transport, Pablo Rodriguez, seemed to get more and more frustrated as the day went on and went from “We can all work together, to “We can do it though legislation--it is better for the industry to do it together...we will intervene if you don't fix it now.”


There is a general acknowledgement that air travel is not very accessible and that the industry must do better from the time of booking to the time someone reaches their destination or returns home.  “From curb to cloud.”


Short-term solutions included simplified, accessible medical forms that are standard for all airlines and kept on file so they don't have to be filled out every time someone travels. Better, consistent and more realistic training for staff since many of the barriers and issues are attitudinal and come from an ableist thought process. There was also talk about an easier-to-navigate and transparent complaint system that is shared with the public.


Some of the long-term solutions proposed included incorporating accessibility into the procurement process, building more accessible planes (they simply aren’t designed for anyone but a slim, average-height, able-bodied traveller), and having better communication systems at airports and on the plane that consider vision, hearing, and neurodiversity needs.


At their private meeting, Todd Peterson told Dean that things were happening in the industry behind the scenes, and announcements were coming very soon about some of the solutions to the problems mentioned at the summit.


A news release went out shortly after the summit which outlines some of the commitments made. We will continue to follow up and hold the airlines accountable.


I want to give special thanks to Dean Steacy and Hilton Schwartz for their work on this issue. I hope we see some positive changes soon.


FEATURED IMAGE ALT TEXT: Photo of a women sitting in a wheelchair at an airport watching a plane arrive.

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