Decision No. 608-A-1996
December 31, 1996
APPLICATION by Ms. Isabelle Trempe pursuant to subsection 172(1) of the Canada Transportation Act, S.C., 1996, c. 10.
File No. U 3570/96-16
Ms. Isabelle Trempe is a person who has paraplegia, uses a wheelchair as well as crutches for shorter distances, and when travelling, requests seats near the washroom to facilitate access. She submits that when she returned from Vancouver to Montréal with Air Canada on July 29, 1996, she encountered problems obtaining the services she had requested in advance: a pre-assigned seat, assistance in boarding and with her carry-on baggage. She also complains of the manner in which the assistance was provided by Air Canada's personnel. Her computer reservation file confirms that these services were requested in advance. Ms. Trempe also raises concerns with difficulties that she encountered with the local BC Transit bus system used to get to the airport.
POSITION OF MS. TREMPE
In her complaint, Ms. Trempe expresses her dissatisfaction with the service provided by the bus driver of a BC Transit bus during her transfer from downtown Vancouver to the airport. In addition, the bus driver did not ensure that someone was available to assist her with her baggage; he merely pointed out that a baggage handler was available. However, he was too far away for her to reach him unassisted. Fortunately, a group travelling on the same bus assisted her by carrying her baggage into the airport.
Ms. Trempe states that she was confused as to where to go once she arrived at the check-in area and she presented herself at Air Canada's group counter where the agent told her she was at the right place and checked her in. Ms. Trempe submits that she has difficulty speaking English and the agent did not take the time to listen to her or to answer her questions. Ms. Trempe indicates that after the agent checked her baggage, she advised her to proceed to the security area. Ms. Trempe realized she was unable to manage carrying her crutches and went to Air Canada's Special Services counter, where an agent stored her crutches during the 1 1/2 hour wait for her flight.
Ms. Trempe states that an Air Canada agent later assisted her to the boarding area. Ms. Trempe describes the level of assistance the agent provided to be inadequate and his attitude unacceptable. She submits that her bags needed to be removed from under her wheelchair to clear the security check. As this proved to be a little difficult for her to accomplish from her own wheelchair, the agent went and got another wheelchair at her suggestion. She submits that, after clearing security, she instructed that her bags be placed back under her wheelchair. Ms. Trempe states that rather than placing them under her wheelchair as she instructed, the agent refused and placed them in the other wheelchair, rushed ahead of her to the boarding area and then abandoned her at the entrance to the boarding area, telling her that someone would come for her. In addition, she was not preboarded which resulted in Air Canada changing her seat.
POSITION OF AIR CANADA
Air Canada indicates that it is unable to provide a baggage assistance service to travellers from bus stops to the check-in area, but that the Vancouver airport does provide such a service. Air Canada states that appropriate signage at the bus stop to identify the routing within the airport could have been helpful in orienting Ms. Trempe, and that it has directed its Director General, Customer Service-British Columbia, to assess this situation with the Vancouver airport authorities to explore possible improvements.
Air Canada submits that there are visual indicators for its Special Services counter, which is near the group counter, such as a bilingual sign identifying it and wheelchairs located at and near the counter. Air Canada states that the group counter agent should have suggested that she go directly to the Special Services counter where she could have been provided with the appropriate assistance. Air Canada states that Ms. Trempe's complaint has therefore been forwarded to its Director General, Customer Service-British Columbia for internal review and improvement in training.
Air Canada states that it was able to identify and discuss the complaint with the agent who was involved in assisting her to the boarding area. Air Canada notes that a lack of communication could have led to a slight difference in the explanations provided by the agent and Ms. Trempe. Air Canada indicates that this agent is one of its most attentive and conscientious agents and that he is very reserved, which may have led to certain perceptions by Ms. Trempe. Air Canada indicates that the agent stated that during the transfer from the security area to the boarding gate, Ms. Trempe questioned whether she should make her way by herself, to which he responded that he was there to provide assistance, but that it was her prerogative to proceed without him. Air Canada further indicates that the agent stated that he did accompany her to the boarding gate, where the boarding crew takes care of boarding priorities of passengers with special needs.
Air Canada states that, since it appears that boarding had begun, its staff slightly delayed assisting Ms. Trempe to ensure the corridor was not congested, a situation which could have hampered her transfer to the aircraft. With respect to Ms. Trempe's passenger seat, Air Canada states that her pre-selected seat would not have been changed after it was reserved. Air Canada indicates that Ms. Trempe's archived reservation file no longer shows seat information, but it is possible that the seat originally selected may have been modified when a Victoria travel agency changed her return date.
Air Canada indicates that it contacted Ms. Trempe on September 13, 1996, following receipt of a copy of her complaint filed with the Agency, to discuss her experiences and invited her to contact one of its representatives before her next trip, for assistance with her reservations.
MS. TREMPE'S RESPONSE
Ms. Trempe states that she does not recall any conversation with the agent about making her way by herself to the boarding area. In fact, she asserts that they did not speak because when she attempted to speak with him, he was not courteous.
Ms. Trempe reiterates that the agent did not leave her at the boarding gate, but rather he left her waiting within the entrance of the boarding area with her carry-on baggage and her crutches. Ms. Trempe submits that when the agent left her, the passengers had not yet started to board the flight. She believes that the boarding crew forgot about her because she was left at the room's entrance rather than at the boarding gate area.
With respect to the change in seat assignment, Ms. Trempe states that one of Air Canada's agents at the boarding gate told her that, once everyone had entered the aircraft, it would be better for her to be seated closer to the entrance of the aircraft, and as such, they would change her seat.
With respect to Ms. Trempe's concerns regarding the services provided by BC Transit, an operator that does not have a contractual agreement with the Airport Authority to serve the airport, the Agency notes that this particular service is under the jurisdiction of the provincial authorities and therefore she should contact BC Transit directly regarding her concerns.
The Agency must determine, however, if Air Canada's non-provision of requested services and the manner in which they were provided resulted in undue obstacles to Ms. Trempe's mobility.
On January 1, 1994, an amendment to the Air Transportation Regulations, SOR/88-58 (hereinafter the ATR) came into effect which regulates the terms and conditions of the domestic carriage of persons with disabilities in aircraft of 30 or more passenger seats. Subsection 147(1) of Part VII of the ATR provides that "subject to section 151, an air carrier shall provide the following services to a person, if requested: ...(b) assisting in proceeding to the boarding area; (c) assisting in boarding and deplaning...". Subsection 151(1) states that "where a person requests a service set out in this Part at least 48 hours before the scheduled time of departure of the person's flight, the air carrier shall provide the person with the service".
In Ms. Trempe's case, assistance in proceeding to the boarding area would have included the assigned agent assisting Ms. Trempe with her carry-on baggage to the boarding area and, once there, leaving her with the gate personnel, who would subsequently be responsible to assist with the boarding process. The Agency notes that Ms. Trempe's computer reservation file confirms that the services were requested at least 48 hours prior to departure. Instead of having the services made available, Ms. Trempe was required to approach a second agent to seek assistance, and the assigned agent then left her at the entrance of the boarding area rather than with the gate agent. The evidence provided by Air Canada does not justify the non-provision of the requested assistance from the time of initial check-in to the boarding gate.
The Agency also notes the concerns raised by Ms. Trempe regarding the manner in which the assigned agent provided assistance in passing through security and then proceeding to the boarding area. It is the Agency's view that Air Canada should be concerned when services provided by its personnel are not perceived by travellers to be rendered in a sensitive, helpful or courteous manner. For example, following the security screening, rather than replacing the bags under the wheelchair, the agent chose to put them in another wheelchair and then proceeded to push the wheelchair and its contents to the boarding area. This was seen by Ms. Trempe as ignoring her instructions, although the agent may very well have decided that this approach was more functional in that the baggage would need to be removed again at the time of boarding. The Agency is of the opinion that had the agent taken the time to explain the reasons for his decision, much of Ms. Trempe's perception of the agent's lack of sensitivity may have been dispelled.
Section 4 of the Agency's Personnel Training of the Assistance of Persons with Disabilities Regulations requires, in part, that carriers ensure that their affected employees know the carrier's policies and procedures with respect to persons with disabilities, including relevant regulatory requirements, such as Part VII of the Agency's ATR which stipulates the services required to be provided for persons with disabilities. In addition, the employees are required to receive general sensitivity training to be able to identify and respond to the needs of persons with disabilities and to be aware of the responsibilities of carriers in relation to those persons, including the level of assistance and methods of communication. While a certain level of assistance was provided to Ms. Trempe to reach the boarding area, it is the Agency's opinion that an adequate level of training, which includes the importance of keeping passengers informed during each stage of travel, may have prevented the difficulties encountered by Ms. Trempe.
Following the issuance of Agency Decision No. 470-A-1996 dated August 20, 1996 relating to the transportation of a person with a disability, Air Canada submitted that it had provided, as of March 29, 1996, refresher training to 4,240 of its customer service employees and managers who make decisions that impact on customer service. The Agency accepted this submission and required no further action in that matter. However, the Agency is concerned that following the provision of this refresher training, Ms. Trempe encountered difficulties with Air Canada's service at the Vancouver airport.
With respect to the change in Ms. Trempe's passenger seat, the Agency notes that Air Canada was unable to confirm whether a change in seating did occur at the time of departure, but speculated that a different seat may have been selected when her return date was modified. The Agency also notes Ms. Trempe's explanation for the change in seating, in that she submits that Air Canada changed her seat to one closer to the entrance, to reduce the amount of manoeuvring required to access the seat. Ms. Trempe did not indicate, however, that the change of her passenger seat had a negative impact on her. In this regard, Air Canada is reminded that subsection 153(2) of the ATR requires Air Canada, before assigning a passenger seat to a person with a disability, to inform the person of those seats that are most accessible for that person. In addition, it is the Agency's opinion that Air Canada should enter into a dialogue with the passenger prior to seat assignment to determine if the designated accessible seat is compatible with the passenger's needs and, if not, to be prepared to assign another seat that may better meet that person's needs.
The Agency finds that Air Canada failed to provide assistance to Ms. Trempe from initial check-in to the boarding gate, which Ms. Trempe had requested in advance at least 48 hours prior to travel. As such Air Canada failed to provide her with a seamless service from check-in to her passenger seat. Air Canada is therefore requested to show cause, within 30 days from the date of this Decision, why the Agency should not rule that it contravened paragraphs 147(1)(b) and (c) and subsection 151(1) of the ATR.
In view of the difficulties encountered by Ms. Trempe with Air Canada's services at the Vancouver airport, the Agency also requests Air Canada to provide, within 30 days from the date of this Decision, the details concerning the training of those employees at the Vancouver airport who are assigned to the group check-in counter and those who assist passengers with special needs from check-in to their passenger seat. The details should include information such as when the employees last received training in accordance with the Agency's Personnel Training of the Assistance of Persons with Disabilities Regulations, whether it was a complete or refresher training program, the length of the training, and when the next refresher training is scheduled for the employees. The Agency will review the information provided by Air Canada and determine if further action is necessary.
In addition, in light of Air Canada's communication with the Director General, Customer Service-British Columbia regarding this complaint, Air Canada is asked to provide, within 30 days from the date of this Decision, an update on what steps were taken at the Vancouver airport to prevent Ms. Trempe's experience from being repeated.