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Michael Rousseau held responsible for Air Canada accessibility failures

Photo: Mario Beauregard Archives The Canadian Press An MP on Tuesday quoted a King's University professor who wrote that Air Canada has up-to-date accessibility frameworks, but that “none of these policies are adequately transferred from the legal and corporate sector to the line of forehead”. Michael Rousseau (seen here in 2021) seemed to agree with this statement: “The main problem is inconsistency.”

Christopher Reynolds – The Canadian Press in Ottawa

February 6, 2024

  • Canada

Legislators reprimanded the CEO on Monday. of Air Canada for its “shocking” and “scandalous” failings towards passengers with disabilities.

At a House of Commons committee hearing on services for Canadians with disabilities, Air Canada boss Michael Rousseau faced an avalanche of questions based on reports of mistreatment of passengers over the past year.

Conservative Vice-President Tracy Gray cited several “shocking” incidents: “A freight elevator fell on a passenger’s head, disconnecting her respirator; Air Canada forgot the wheelchair of Canada's chief accessibility officer on a cross-Canada flight […] and a man was dropped and injured after Air Canada staff did not use an elevator as request. »

The main problem is inconsistency.

—Michael Rousseau

In August, a man with spastic cerebral palsy was forced to drag himself off a plane for lack of help. A situation that Bloc Québécois MP Louise Chabot described as “scandalous”.

New Democratic Party (NDP) disability inclusion spokesperson Bonita Zarrillo asked Mr. Rousseau if he had ever had to crawl down an airplane aisle or going out on a supply cart — in reference to the situations described — he replied “no, of course not”.

“We make mistakes,” he said.

Mr. Rousseau highlighted an accelerated accessibility program announced in November, as well as new measures aimed at improving the travel experience for hundreds of thousands of passengers with disabilities.

Last week, the carrier formed an advisory committee of customers with disabilities and implemented a program in which a lanyard worn by travelers will alert staff that they might need help.

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“The vast majority of customers who request accessibility assistance from Air Canada have a good experience. There are exceptions. We assume responsibility for these exceptions,” admitted Mr. Rousseau. He apologized last fall for the airline's accessibility issues.

Ms. Zarrillo suggested the flaws run deeper than occasional missteps, saying Air Canada's “corporate culture” and lack of federal enforcement explain the mistreatment, even after the regulatory reforms of the last five years.

Flaws in the law

Conservative MP Rosemarie Falk asked Mr. Rousseau if the airline was complying with all regulations. He initially avoided a firm answer by replying: “I can't answer that question at the moment.”

After he finally responded with a yes, Ms. Falk pointed out that the airline's accessibility issues in the context of alleged compliance with the law suggested “major flaws” in the Act Accessibility Policy, adopted in 2019.

However, Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos said the problem seemed to lie more in the day-to-day implementation of these policies than in the rules or approaches coming from senior management.

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

Mr. Rousseau seemed to agree with this statement: “The main problem is inconsistency. »

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

This call followed repeated complaints from Paralympic athletes about damaged or broken equipment, in addition to delayed flights for Canadian competitors heading to the Parapan American Games in Chile in November.

Not very concrete actions

Last month, Air Canada appealed a decision by the country's transportation regulator, which aims to improve accessibility for travelers with disabilities. If Air Canada were to win its case, the ruling would overturn the obligation to fully accommodate passengers whose wheelchairs are too large to fit into the aircraft's cargo hold.

As part of its three-year accessibility plan, Air Canada has committed to implementing measures ranging from the creation of a director of accessibility to priority boarding passengers who request assistance.

The Montreal company also aims to implement annual and recurring training on accessibility – such as how to use a transport support – for its approximately 10,000 employees in airports. It also plans to include mobility aids in an application to track baggage.

Flight delays – a persistent problem for Air Canada, which ranked last in on-time performance last year out of 10 major North American carriers – affect people with disabilities more, Rousseau acknowledged. He said the company's latest steps were intended to “help alleviate this concern.”

Accessibility advocates have highlighted gaps in Canada's Accessible Act that they say allow problems to persist in areas ranging from consultation to support protocols .

Heather Walkus, who heads the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, noted a lack of detail on how to train staff. She also cited a rule requiring federally regulated businesses to involve people with disabilities in the development of policies, programs and services – a “rule as stiff as butter.”

“You can send an administrator to Tim Hortons to speak to a person in a wheelchair and you have consulted with the disability community. This is a formality to be crossed off the list,” she told The Canadian Press in November. The group she leads has not been contacted by Air Canada about its new accessibility plan, she said.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116