Air Canada CEO criticized over accessibility services in House committee

CEO Michael Rousseau faced a barrage of questions about reports of passenger mistreatment over the past year.

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Lawmakers on Monday criticized Air Canada’s chief executive for “shocking” and “scandalous” failures to accommodate passengers living with disabilities.

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

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Vice President Tracy Gray cited several “shocking” incidents from 2023: “An Air Canada passenger had an elevator fall on her head and her ventilator was disconnected; “Air Canada left Canada’s chief accessibility officer’s wheelchair behind on a cross-Canada flight… and a man fell and was injured when Air Canada staff did not use the elevator as requested.”

In August, a man with spastic cerebral palsy was forced to crawl off a plane for lack of help, a situation Bloc Québécois MP Louise Chabot called “scandalous.”

When asked how Air Canada would improve its services, Rousseau responded: “We make mistakes.” But he highlighted an accelerated accessibility plan 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 airline formed an advisory committee made up of customers with disabilities and introduced a program in which a lanyard worn by travelers signals to staff that they may need help.

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

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Last fall, he apologized for the airline’s failures.

NDP disability inclusion critic Bonita Zarrillo suggested the shortcomings run deeper than occasional errors, saying Air Canada’s corporate culture and lack of federal law enforcement are to blame for mistreatment, even after the regulatory reforms of the last five years.

“I simply do not believe that stories of gross and egregious neglect and harm to disabled people, whether to their physical being or their dignity, should be necessary. The violation of their human rights should not be the tip of the spear,” she said in an interview before the hearing.

Complaints have come from various corners.

In December, the Canadian Paralympic Committee along with some para-athletes demanded better transportation to and from overseas competitions.

The call came after repeated complaints from Paralympic athletes about damaged or broken equipment, as well as flight delays 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 transportation regulator that seeks to boost accessibility for travelers living with a disability. If successful, the measure would waive the requirement to fully accommodate passengers whose wheelchairs are too large to move in airplane cargo holds.

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Under its three-year accessibility plan, Air Canada has committed to implementing measures ranging from establishing a customer accessibility manager to systematically addressing passengers who request elevator assistance first.

The Toronto-based company also intends to implement annual and regular accessibility training (for example, how to use an eagle lift) for its roughly 10,000 airport employees. Additionally, it plans to include mobility aids in an app that can track luggage.

Parliamentarians and accessibility advocates have pointed out holes in the Canada Accessibility Act that they say allow problems to persist in areas ranging from consultation to attendance protocols.

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

“You could send the manager to Tim Hortons and talk to someone in a wheelchair and consult with the disability community. It’s a trade-off,” he told The Canadian Press in November. Air Canada has not contacted the group she leads about its new accessibility plan, she said.

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