Air accessibility summit in Ottawa targets mistreatment of people with disabilities

May 9, 2024 | Canadian News, News

The first-ever Air Accessibility Summit was held by federal ministers in Ottawa on May 9 after numerous passengers with disabilities reported being mistreated by Canadian airlines.

The summit, held by federal Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez and Persons with Disabilities Minister Kamal Khera, will hear from Canadian air sector representatives, persons with disabilities and accessibility advocates.

Rodriguez is concerned issues faced by Canadians with disabilities are overlooked and hopes to plan for better transportation with help from the summit.

“We can’t treat a wheelchair like luggage,” Rodriguez said. “That’s why we are here today to build better transportation for Canadians with disabilities.”

Transport Canada announced in March it is committed to ensuring air transportation is accessible and barrier-free by 2040, according to a government release.

Khera, who was elected as the minister of diversity and inclusion in the summer of 2023, addressed instances with passengers and the government’s dedication to equality.

“Over the past (of) couple months, a number of unacceptable instances where passengers with disabilities weren’t treated with basic human dignity and respect,” she said. “We want to be clear that treating with Canadians with disabilities with respect is not optional.”

Khera also addressed the government’s initiatives pushing for air transit accessibility and how the summit can play a crucial role in implementation.

“As a government, sectors are stepping up for a systemic change so that barrier-free air travel is everywhere,” she said. “Today marks the first step to making air accessibility a priority.”

The first panel of participants includes representatives from organizations like the Autism Alliance of Canada and Spinal Cord Injury Canada, with representatives from airlines including Air Canada and WestJet on the second panel.

In early February, Air Canada faced a backlash after passengers with disabilities complained about the mistreatment by airline staff.

Nearly a week after Air Canada, WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech followed suit with an apology after the airline failed to accommodate people with disabilities.

Both federal ministers spoke with the media following the summit and addressed the new initiatives expected from the government and airlines alike.

“We as a government want results as the current situation is just unacceptable,” Rodriguez said. “It’s about humans and dignity, and that’s just fundamental.”

The summit discussed the industry working towards streamlining a common intake form for passengers with disabilities.

“If you are a passenger with disabilities, and you there is a different form that you have to fill out for every airline, we want to make sure that it’s standardized,” Khera said.

Additionally, the summit discussed the airlines’ commitment to data sharing with the government in hopes of working collaboratively.

“Airlines are committed to collecting and sharing the data with us so that we can track incidents and identify problem areas within the industry,” Khera said.

The mention of penalties for the airlines that do not follow the new initiatives was not explicitly stated, but Rodriguez said the government would look into it if needed.

Khera says the government looks forward to working alongside the disability community to make effective changes and a barrier-free system.

“The collaborative commitment I saw in that room is what is needed now, and in the future,” Khera said.