Sunday, June 23, 2024

‘We can, and we must, do better’: First-ever Air Accessibility Summit hits Ottawa

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Passengers who say they’ve been mistreated by Canadian airlines had the national stage today as federal ministers, airline executives and accessibility advocates gathered for the first-ever Canadian Air Accessibility Summit.  

“We can’t treat a wheelchair like luggage. It simply isn’t luggage. That is why we are here today,” said Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez in his opening remarks on Thursday morning. 

Rodriguez and Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Persons with Disabilities Kamal Khera co-hosted the Ottawa summit. 

“We know that the instances we do hear about only represent a small number of the instances that do occur,” Khera said. “We can, and we must, do better.” 

In recent months, stories of passengers whose wheelchairs have been broken while flying, and passengers who were left behind or forced to deplane without assistance, have made headlines.

The stories prompted a parliamentary committee to launch a study on accessibility in the airline industry, with executives brought before it.

Many of those stories were relayed again Thursday at the summit. 

Lawyer and Paralympic athlete Josh Vander Vies told the audience about the times he has arrived at his destination without a functioning wheelchair or with his equipment left behind. While he called on the airlines to do better at ensuring accessibility equipment is handled properly, he also called on airline manufacturers and designers of accessibility equipment to modify their designs to help accommodate people with disabilities.

In 2019, the federal government passed the Accessible Canada Act with the aim of trying to make travel more accessible. In 2022, it took another step towards that goal by introducing the Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities Regulations.

But accessibility advocates say that despite those changes airlines rarely face punishment for breaching Canadian disability regulations.

The chair of Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance David Lepofsky called the summit “smoke and mirrors.”

“The airlines know what would they need to do, the airports know what they need to do, the federal government knows what they need to do,” Lepofsky said. “Instead of doing it they’re holding a big, glitzy summit, so they can stand around talking about what they need to do rather than doing it.

Lepofsky, who is legally blind, said he dreads flying in Canada because of what he says are “inconsistent services.”

“I never know, when I land, how long it’s going to take me to get out of the airport, (and) whether or not I’m going to have someone to assist me who’s got any proper training on how to guide a blind person,” he said. “It’s basically organized or disorganized chaos.” 

It’s an experience Robert Fenton knows well. As the chair of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) board of directors, Fenton, who is a frequent traveller, says he’s learned to expect delays or what he calls hiccups.

“When you are busy and have worked all day and want to get to your hotel or race from the airport to a meeting, the last thing you want are delays due to an accessibility,” he said.

“We are busy people too, we have lives too, and I think that is sometimes forgotten, and I think people in society often assume that people with disabilities have unlimited time.”

Fenton says that while he is optimistic progress is being made, he believes it will likely take years before passengers with accessibility needs can expect a consistently smooth flying experience.

“The optimist in me says I hope so, but the realist in me says I want to wait and see,” he said when asked about the speed of progress.

The CNIB recently proposed 25 changes it believes would make for a smoother travel experience for people who are deaf, blind or have low vision. Fenton says the government should look there for advice on what changes to make.

What’s next

The government announced the airlines will soon have new measures to announce, but no details were provided.

Asked about those announcements, WestJet’s vice-president of external affairs Andrew Gibbons offered few details, but suggested the change has to do with the treatment of mobility aids.

“We will have more to say on that in the coming weeks, but that is a criticism that we have heard and as they say to us very clearly these are people’s legs, people’s dignity. These are not people’s luggage and we understand that,” Gibbons said.

Air Canada also had a representative at the event. The airline’s vice-president Canadian airports and customer experience strategy Tom Stevens said the summit was a good opportunity to bring stakeholders together to find ways to reach a barrier-free Canada.

“We believe that in order to make improvements we need to understand from our customers what it is like to travel,” Stevens said.

Last year, Air Canada launched a 145-page accessibility plan that Stevens says the airline is using to make changes, including offering passengers the ability to track their mobility devices using the company’s mobile app.

“We know that we need to do better as an industry and that’s what we are working on,” Stevens said. “We are fully behind this and committed.”

The federal transport minister says he will meet with his European and American counterparts in the coming months to discuss accessibility in the air sector.

“I am pretty convinced we can accelerate some of the solutions,” Rodriguez said. “What I am ready to do is implement what you guys need because you guys know what you need way more than I do.”

In his closing press conference, Rodriguez said the airlines had agreed to adopt a common medical form, a change many had been asking for, and that the industry intended to explore better ways to share data with the federal government and regulatory agencies. No new penalties or fines, however, were announced.

In a statement, the National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC), which represents Canada’s largest air carriers, said it is committed to working with partners to standardize and share relevant data that can be used to improve accessibility.

“We support the creation of a common medical intake process for cases requiring medical clearance and will work diligently to ensure this is implemented in a manner that respects the privacy of our customers,” the council’s president and CEO Jeff Morrison said in a statement. “Airlines are committed to removing barriers for air passengers with disabilities and advocate that all modes of transportation be required to follow suit.”

What’s needed

Throughout the day, advocates made several suggestions for changes they hope the industry will implement to make flying a smoother experience. Those suggestions ranged from better data sharing between stakeholders, to the simplification of medical forms and even removing the requirement for one all together.

The founder and CEO of AccessNow, Maayan Ziv, said the summit was an important chance to discuss the inconsistences Canadians with disabilities face and to collaborate on ways to improve services.

“Tomorrow, I’d love to be able to get on a plane and stay in my wheelchair. The reality is that we’re far from that day,” she said. “We need aircraft manufacturers involved and designers and there’s a whole system. So I don’t think it’s really about any quick fix. But I’d say the most fundamental one is a cultural shift.”

Ziv says she is optimistic that the disability community will continue to advocate to see its rights achieved, but says she is not optimistic about the timelines just yet.

“I’m excited about days like today where that advocacy has led to this room being filled with people who are in positions to make those changes possible,” Ziv said. “There’s nothing stopping any industry, any company, from putting in place new policies tomorrow, today that actually respond to any customer’s desires or wishes.”

The summit closed with a commitment from airline executives and government officials to do better and work harder to make the flying experience smoother for passengers with accessibility needs.

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