Decision No. 630-AT-A-1998

December 18, 1998

Follow-up - Decision No. 624-AT-A-2001

December 18, 1998

APPLICATION by Gilles Daoust pursuant to subsection 172(1) of the Canada Transportation Act, S.C., 1996, c. 10, with respect to the difficulties he experienced with boarding assistance, seating assignment, services provided on board the aircraft and the late delivery of his wheelchair upon arrival in Mirabel on a return trip from London, England, to Montréal, Quebec, with Air Canada.

File No. U 3570/98-8


Application

Gilles Daoust filed an application with the Canadian Transportation Agency (hereinafter the Agency) with respect to the matter set out in the title. The application was received on May 21, 1998.

Issue

The issue to be addressed is whether the level of service provided to Mr. Daoust constituted an undue obstacle to his mobility and, if so, what corrective measures should be taken.

Facts

Mr. Daoust is quadriplegic, uses an electric wheelchair and is a man of strong build. He travelled from Canada to Finland with Air Canada, Air France and Finnair OY (hereinafter Finnair). On this trip, he did not take his electric wheelchair, but rather travelled with a manual wheelchair. On his return, on August 3, 1997, Mr. Daoust departed from Heathrow Airport in London, enroute to Montréal (Mirabel International Airport), on Air Canada Flight No. 865. He was travelling on business with two colleagues, one of whom was his wife, Ms. Tremblay.

When he booked his trip, Mr. Daoust provided Air Canada's Medadesk with a medical profile completed by his doctor. This document described the passenger's physical and medical needs, his weight, and advised that he needs an attendant to help him change positions during the flight and to assist him with services of a personal nature. The passenger requires a boarding chair to get to/from his passenger seat and the chair must be wide enough to accommodate the weight of the passenger and have removable sides for ease of lateral transfer.

Mr. Daoust's computer reservation PNR (Passenger Name Record) created by Air Canada reflected the WCHC code (Passenger Non-ambulatory and Non-self-reliant) and the fact that the passenger was travelling with an attendant. The document also reflected that, due to the passenger's size, the purchase of two seats was suggested. Mr. Daoust chose to reserve only one seat.

Air Canada does not own boarding bridges in London. In fact, it is the airport authority who determines how and when the boarding of a flight will take place. Furthermore, in accordance with the Airport Authority's rules, passengers with mobility restrictions are boarded by a contracted ambulance service, Heathrow Ambulance Service. The carrier has no control over the services provided by Heathrow Ambulance Service as it is not a contractor hired by Air Canada. Prior to the departure of Flight No. 865 on August 3, 1997, no boarding bridge was available for Air Canada's use, and passengers, with the exception of those with mobility impairments, were required to use the aircraft stairs.

Mr. Daoust was transported from the terminal building to the aircraft on an Air Canada accessible vehicle as the ambulance services were not immediately available. Two employees lifted Mr. Daoust from his personal wheelchair onto the boarding chair and took him to his seat onboard the aircraft. One ambulance employee then transferred Mr. Daoust from the boarding chair to aircraft seat 28D, a seat without a movable armrest. During the transfer, the passenger's clothing became undone and his catheter broke. As a result, Mr. Daoust required immediate personal attention, which included the need to change his clothing.

In addition, upon his arrival in Mirabel, Mr. Daoust had to wait two hours at the Baggage Carousel for the delivery of his manual wheelchair.

Positions of the parties

Attendant

Air Canada states that on the basis of the information provided by the passenger and his physician concerning his state of health, Mr. Daoust was accepted on the condition that he be accompanied by an attendant.

Mr. Daoust maintains that he never received a verbal or written notice that he must have an attendant. Mr. Daoust submits that this was his first time travelling by air and due to the fact that the Thomas Cook travel agency was not able to confirm for him whether he needed an attendant, he sent documents describing his physical condition to Air Canada, Air France and Finnair. He also submits that in a telephone conversation with an Air Canada representative, he described his disability and the representative advised him that he did not need an attendant. He also states that on his departure from Mirabel on July 26, 1997, and for the flights with Air France or Finnair, the question of an attendant was never raised.

Boarding Difficulties

Mr. Daoust expresses the opinion that the transfer from his personal wheelchair to the boarding chair was done by Air Canada employees. He states that he was injured when going down the aisles on the boarding chair. According to Mr. Daoust, the employees did not look out for the armrests on the other passengers' seats and he was caught on practically every one of the other passengers' seats. He questions why the seat assigned to him was so far, and why it was not equipped with a movable armrest. He points out that on the same round trip he took five other aircraft, and he did not experience these difficulties on those aircraft even though the same type of wheelchair was used and the aisles were of comparable width. Mr. Daoust objects to the staff not taking any precautions on this last flight to ensure he would not be injured and that they did not help him go down the aisle with dignity.

With respect to the transfer from the boarding chair to the seat, Mr. Daoust maintains that the cabin crew refused to help the ambulance employee, who had to make the transfer alone. Mr. Daoust is of the opinion that this incident occurred due to the fact that only one employee transferred him to the seat. Air Canada greatly regrets the incident and apologizes most sincerely for it.

Air Canada explains that in London, the cabin crew does not transport persons with reduced mobility from the aircraft door to their seats. That is the duty of ground attendants or ambulance employees in the service of the airport authorities - the Heathrow Ambulance Service. Air Canada confirms that, contrary to what Mr. Daoust maintained, it was two employees of Heathrow Ambulance Service who transferred him to his seat, using a portable wheelchair. It states that Heathrow Ambulance Service is not a sub-contractor chosen by Air Canada, over which it can exercise any control, and that it cannot be held liable for the acts of Heathrow Airport employees. Air Canada also points out that the regulatory provisions concerning assistance provided to persons with disabilities cannot apply to Canadian air carriers travelling abroad as they are subject to different operational constraints and regulatory provisions than those in Canada.

Seat Selection

Air Canada states that in London, a boarding bridge is normally made available to it by the airport authorities. Air Canada explains that the boarding for Flight No. 865 was done under highly unusual conditions and it was given less than 90 minutes' notice of the fact that the boarding of the flight in question would be operated without a bridge. Air Canada points out that eight Air Canada flights that were to take off and land at Heathrow Airport between 11:55 and 13:10 were handled without a boarding bridge. On each of those flights, there were persons with impaired mobility requiring wheelchairs, and thus Air Canada had to rely on the services of Heathrow Ambulance Service to coordinate everything. After a while, and since no Hi-Lift ambulances were available, passengers with a mobility impairment were taken to the aircraft by the Air Canada service vehicle, which has a wheelchair access ramp.

Air Canada maintains that if a boarding bridge had been used, seat 28D would have been just two rows from the exit. Air Canada submits that it was impossible for it to change the seat assignment because its airport services did not have sufficient resources to change the seat assignments and did not know to which door Heathrow Ambulance Service would take the passengers. Air Canada acknowledges that seat 28D was not equipped with a movable armrest on the aisle side.

Announcement of the Delay

Mr. Daoust states that while he was talking to other passengers in the aircraft, he learned that the flight attendants had told them that the delay was caused by a person with disability who had not advised the airport of his presence. However, he does not know whether that information had been conveyed over the loud speaker system or through individual discussions with staff members. Air Canada states that no such announcement was made for Flight No. 865 on August 3, 1997. Air Canada also points out that Mr. Daoust said that he had not heard that announcement, but that he had learned from an unidentified passenger that such an announcement had been made. Air Canada adds that the purser stated that he did not remember an announcement of a delay. According to Air Canada, if such an announcement had been made, it would simply have stated that the carrier was waiting for an ambulance carrying one or more passengers.

Request for Assistance during the Flight

Mr. Daoust submits that he asked for a wet towel and assistance so that he could change his catheter, and for a little privacy to do so because of the limited space. According to Mr. Daoust, one person alone cannot carry out this function. He claims that he told three people that his catheter was broken and that he would have to change it: the ambulance employee at the time he was transferred, the flight attendant in charge and another attendant during the flight. He also states that when he advised the flight attendant of this situation, she pointed out the washroom facility. In Mr. Daoust's view, if the flight attendants had taken the time to discuss this problem with him, they would have been able to find a solution. He advises that with a minimum amount of cooperation, it is possible to change a catheter while remaining seated. For example, one of the attendants could have stood in the aisle holding a blanket to shield him from the other passengers, and they could have given Ms. Tremblay any necessary toiletry items.

Air Canada maintains that its personnel were not aware of the broken catheter and that this matter was never mentioned to the flight attendants. Air Canada also points out that no request for blankets had been made. It was only at the end of the flight that Mr. Daoust apparently asked the flight attendant in charge to help him change his clothing, without indicating why he had to change. According to the purser, if Mr. Daoust and his wife had indicated their needs, he could have consulted a physician to determine how to assist them. Air Canada maintains that it is up to a passenger with a disability to clearly indicate his or her needs and the assistance required to the flight attendants. Air Canada states that the flight attendants are not responsible for passenger hygiene and that, as set out in the documents provided by Mr. Daoust, it was up to his attendant to look after him.

With respect to the attitude of the cabin crew, Mr. Daoust states that throughout the flight he and his colleagues felt a great deal of coldness or even disdain on the part of the crew. They left him with the impression that they were not trying to solve his problems and they were reluctant to honor his requests. Air Canada is of the position that its personnel remained courteous throughout the trip, despite the verbal abuse by Ms. Tremblay.

Insensitivity of the Flight Attendants

Mr. Daoust submits that, although it is true that the personnel remained courteous, they did nothing to assist him or to respond to his simple requests. He objects to the personnel not communicating with him to solve his problems, given the existing constraints. Mr. Daoust considers that the refusal to help and the failure to discuss the problem clearly showed that the cabin crew were not only insensitive to the situation, but also did not have proper training.

Concerning the training of its staff, Air Canada confirms that its cabin crews received training relating to awareness of the needs of passengers with disabilities. Both London employees had also received training in transporting persons with reduced mobility although it is not the same training modules as that received by employees based in Canada.

Late Delivery of the Wheelchair

Concerning the late delivery of his wheelchair on his arrival in Mirabel, Mr. Daoust states that he had to wait over two hours before receiving his wheelchair. He points out that this situation was particularly stressful because he did not know whether his wheelchair had been lost or damaged. On his exit from five of the six aircraft he had taken on his round trip, the airport personnel were able to transfer him immediately, as his wheelchair was already waiting for him on the boarding platform.

Air Canada acknowledges that it took a considerable time for all the baggage in the baggage compartment, including Mr. Daoust's wheelchair, to be brought to the terminal, and confirms that Mr. Daoust received his wheelchair within two hours of the arrival of the flight. Air Canada points out that at Mirabel, two baggage carousels were used by Air Canada and other companies. According to Air Canada, the late delivery of the wheelchair was caused by the late arrival of Flight No. 865, which arrived in Mirabel at the same time as or a few minutes after a number of other flights. Air Canada explains that this situation led to a bottleneck at the baggage carousels, and the carriers had to wait their turn before unloading their baggage containers.

Mr. Daoust states that before leaving London he had asked the flight attendant in charge and another flight attendant for assistance and a private room at Mirabel International Airport. He said that on his arrival in Mirabel neither the personnel of Air Canada nor that of the airport, were able to find him an office or any other private place to change his clothing. Air Canada states that on arrival, the flight attendants helped Mr. Daoust complete the customs formalities and that no request was apparently made for access to a closed room.

Analysis and findings

In making its findings, the Agency has considered all of the evidence submitted by the parties.

The Agency is of the opinion that this complaint concerns four fundamental issues: the level of assistance offered to Mr. Gilles Daoust during the boarding and transfer process, the seat assignment, assistance during the flight and the late delivery of Mr. Daoust's wheelchair upon arrival in Mirabel.

On the issue of the level of service provided to Mr. Daoust during boarding at Heathrow Airport in London, the Agency recognizes the pre-boarding difficulties encountered by Air Canada due to the unexpected non-availability of a boarding bridge. This was further complicated by the number of flights departing within a short time frame and all of these flights required the services of Heathrow Ambulance Service personnel. Under the circumstances, it would appear that Air Canada personnel did what it could to facilitate timely boarding such as providing Mr. Daoust with transportation to the aircraft while awaiting the arrival of the ambulance service employees.

However, with respect to the manner in which Mr. Daoust was transferred to his seat, the Agency is concerned with the allegation that the passenger was bumped and pushed down the aisle with no apparent concern for his welfare. In addition, it is noted that once the passenger arrived at his assigned passenger seat, only one ambulance employee performed the transfer from the boarding chair to the passenger seat. According to various training programs on transfer techniques, there is a one-person and a two-person lift method. Given Mr. Daoust's size and the fact that there was no removable armrest on the assigned seat, the two-person method would have been a more appropriate method. The Agency finds that the transfer was an obstacle to Mr. Daoust and that it was performed contrary to Heathrow Ambulance Service's own policy which requires that two persons transfer a passenger from a Washington wheelchair to the aircraft seat. The Agency finds that, in this case, the transfer by one person constituted an undue obstacle to Mr. Daoust's mobility in that the embarrassment and resulting personal predicament that ensued could have easily been avoided had the transfer been done by two employees.

While recognizing that the boarding and the transfer of passengers with disabilities at Heathrow airport is the responsibility of the airport authority, the Agency is of the opinion that, following the incident experienced by Mr. Daoust and in order to prevent the recurrence of similar situations in the future, it would be appropriate for Air Canada to raise its concerns directly with the Heathrow Airport Authority in order that it may review this incident with its contractor, Heathrow Ambulance Service. Air Canada should provide the Agency with a copy of the representations made directly to the Airport Authority and/or Heathrow Ambulance Service on this matter as well as a summary of any corrective measures taken as a result of these discussions.

While the transfer should have been performed by two persons, the difficulties experienced by Mr. Daoust could have been avoided or minimized had Air Canada originally assigned Mr. Daoust a seat with a removable armrest. Air Canada submitted that it was aware of the "strong build" of the passenger and that he required boarding and deplaning assistance. Furthermore, the Agency is aware of Air Canada's "General Policy" for advance seat selection as set out in the Central Information System, Chapter 36 -seating which, provides, in part, that:

Air Canada must provide accessible seating arrangements to customers with disability who have special needs. This includes customers requiring a liftable/removable armrest seat...

The Agency finds that in this case, the failure by Air Canada to assign an aisle seat with a removable armrest to Mr. Daoust constituted an undue obstacle to his mobility. The obstacle is undue in that it led to the difficulties encountered by the passenger during the transfer. These difficulties could easily have been avoided had the personnel involved in the seating assignment at the time of booking paid attention to the seating needs of the passenger and assigned him a seat compatible with his special needs.

With respect to the level of service provided during the flight, and based on the evidence submitted, it would appear that Mr. Daoust's expectations concerning the assistance from personnel was beyond what is normally provided by an air carrier to persons with disabilities. The Agency notes that services provided to a person with a disability onboard an aircraft by airline personnel or its contracted employees, include services such as: assistance in boarding and deboarding; assistance to and from an onboard washroom but not within; assistance with the opening of food packages; cutting food; and storing and retrieving carry-on luggage. Other services such as administering medication, feeding, assistance inside a washroom or, in this case, repairing a catheter or changing a passenger's clothing are considered services of a personal nature, and if needed, must be provided by an accompanying attendant. The Agency finds, however, that notwithstanding the obvious discomfort felt by cabin crew in the situation, Air Canada personnel could have taken the initiative to explain the limits of their assistance and, in so doing, open the lines of communication with Mr. Daoust. A logical discussion of the limitations of what could be provided could have taken place and a solution could perhaps have been found to the satisfaction of Mr. Daoust.

The Agency finds that, to prevent any possible misunderstanding in the future, Air Canada should issue a bulletin summarizing the incident experienced by Mr. Daoust and remind its flight crews of the importance of ensuring that the special needs of persons with disabilities are understood.

On the issue of the late delivery of Mr. Daoust's wheelchair upon arrival in Mirabel, while the Agency is aware that Air Canada has procedures in place to ensure that passengers' mobility aids are promptly returned to their users upon arrival at destination, the Agency is concerned with instances such as the one experienced by Mr. Daoust when an air carrier fails to respond in a timely manner to the special needs of persons with disabilities.

While recognizing the operational difficulties caused by the arrival of several flights and consequent limited baggage carousel capability, the Agency finds that a two-hour wait for the delivery of Mr. Daoust's wheelchair constituted an undue obstacle to his mobility. The obstacle is undue in that it could have been easily avoided had airport ground personnel in Mirabel recognized the importance of a person's mobility aid. The Agency is of the opinion that in such unusual circumstances where an extended wait is required for the unloading of baggage, a person's mobility aid should be considered a priority and be returned to the passenger while he/she waits as all other passengers for the delivery of baggage on the carousel. The Agency is of the opinion that Air Canada should submit a report on the corrective measures taken to prevent the recurrence of the situations experienced by Mr. Daoust.

Conclusion

Based on the above findings, the Agency requires Air Canada to take the following measures, within thirty (30) days from the date of this Decision:

  1. to issue a bulletin reminding all employees of the importance of following existing procedures with respect to seating assignment and discussing seating arrangements with the passenger to determine whether the seat assigned is compatible with the person's needs;
  2. to raise its concerns in writing with the Heathrow Airport Authority regarding the manner in which Mr. Daoust was transferred to his seat on August 3, 1997, and to provide a copy of its communication to the Agency;
  3. to issue an advisory bulletin to its flight crews summarizing the incident experienced by Mr. Daoust and stressing the importance of inquiring periodically during the flight to ensure that the special needs of persons with disabilities are well understood; and
  4. to provide a report on the corrective measures implemented by Air Canada to prevent the recurrence of the situation experienced by Mr. Daoust with respect to the delivery of his wheelchair.

Following its review of the required material, the Agency will determine whether further action is required with respect to this matter.

Members

  • Jean Patenaude
  • Keith Penner
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