Decision No. 709-AT-A-1999
December 20, 1999
APPLICATION by Jeanne Pelletier, pursuant to subsection 172(1) of the Canada Transportation Act, S.C., 1996, c. 10, regarding the level of wheelchair assistance provided by Air Canada on a return trip to Victoria, British Columbia, from Montréal, Quebec, in January 1999.
File No. U 3570/99-37
On August 10, 1999, Marie Claire Pelletier, on behalf of her mother Jeanne Pelletier, filed an application with the Canadian Transportation Agency (hereinafter the Agency) with respect to the matter set out in the title.
Air Canada provided its answer to the complaint on September 13, 1999, and on September 30, 1999, the Agency received Mrs. Pelletier's reply.
Pursuant to subsection 29(1) of the Canada Transportation Act (hereinafter the Act), the Agency is required to make its decision no later than 120 days after the application is received unless the parties agree to an extension. In this case, the parties have agreed to an extension of the statutory deadline until December 20, 1999.
The issue to be determined by the Agency is whether the level of wheelchair assistance constituted an undue obstacle to Mrs. Pelletier's mobility and, if so, what corrective measures should be taken.
Mrs. Pelletier is 80 years old and has a mobility impairment. She has difficulty ascending and descending steps and requires a wheelchair for long distances. This information had been conveyed to all Air Canada stations involved through her Passenger Name Record (PNR) which contains the Special Service Code "WCHS".
According to the initial itinerary on January 5, 1999, Mrs. Pelletier and her daughter were scheduled to travel on Air Canada Flight No. 109 from Montréal, Quebec, to Vancouver, British Columbia, with a stopover in Toronto, Ontario. In Vancouver, they were then to take a connecting flight to Victoria, British Columbia.
Flight No. 109, scheduled to leave Dorval Airport at 11 a.m., was delayed two hours and arrived in Toronto in the midst of a severe snowstorm. Passengers bound for Vancouver were informed that they had to transfer to another aircraft leaving at Gate 78 at 3 p.m.
Mrs. Pelletier and her daughter deplaned without the assistance of a wheelchair. Mrs. Pelletier's daughter sought an airline agent who was able to find one. He then directed Mrs. Pelletier and her daughter to Gate 78 for the connecting flight. At that gate, they were informed that the flight was full and were redirected to Gate 81 for a later flight scheduled to leave at 4 p.m. Departure was, however, rescheduled to 6 p.m. Mrs. Pelletier's daughter then advised an agent that her mother was exhausted and could not possibly wait this long. They were therefore rebooked on Flight No. 115 scheduled to leave at 5:30 p.m. at Gate 83. This flight was also delayed and left after 7 p.m.
Upon arriving in Vancouver, no wheelchair was available at the door of the aircraft and an in-flight crew member escorted both passengers from the plane and up a long corridor, then made arrangements for an electric cart to transport them to Gate A9 for AirBC Flight No. 1519 to Victoria. They arrived late and missed the flight. The next flight, scheduled for 10:35 p.m., was delayed and left at 11:30 p.m.
In Victoria, and while still onboard the aircraft, Mrs. Pelletier became ill and lost consciousness. She was revived by her daughter and with the assistance of a flight attendant. Paramedics and ambulance attendants were called and attended to Mrs. Pelletier. Following the incident, Mrs. Pelletier indicated that she felt well enough to go home and was assisted by the ambulance attendants to retrieve her baggage and take a taxi.
As a result of the incidents described above, Mrs. Pelletier's daughter filed a complaint directly with Air Canada, on behalf of her mother, requesting apologies for the treatment she and her mother had received, and that the carrier recognize the seriousness of the situation.
POSITIONS OF THE PARTIES
Mrs. Pelletier's daughter feels that she and her mother did not receive the wheelchair assistance that had been requested and that Air Canada's personnel should have shown more consideration and compassion for her mother's age or well-being.
She states that upon arriving at the airport in Montréal there were long line-ups at the check-in counters, and that all agents were busy. Knowing that her mother would not be able to stand in line for any lengthy period, she accompanied her to the Special Services Counter in the hope of receiving assistance. She left her mother in line at that counter and went looking for assistance. She states that she approached an Air Canada representative who provided a wheelchair and then accompanied her and her mother to another agent who checked them in for Flight No. 109 to Toronto.
She submits that, given her mother's age and mobility impairment, they should have had boarding priority on the flight at Gate 78 in Toronto, ahead of other passengers who were in a better position to wait. She further submits that when she returned to Gate 78 to obtain information, she heard the names of stand-by passengers being called for boarding.
As Air Canada failed to take them on the earlier flight to Vancouver, she states that the carrier should have provided overnight accommodation and allowed them to take a flight the following day, or at least have provided meal vouchers as the only nourishment she and her mother had had up to then was a light snack on the flight from Montréal.
She indicates that the lengthy delays, the stress, and the lack of sleep and nourishment are what, in her opinion, caused her mother to become ill onboard the aircraft.
Air Canada states that the severe weather conditions in the Toronto area in early January 1999 impacted on its operations at Lester B. Pearson International Airport, as well as on other stations. It acknowledges the service failures and explains that they do not reflect the level of service it provides under normal circumstances.
On the issue of boarding priority, Air Canada states that it does not board stand-by passengers ahead of regular paying passengers when it is not able to accommodate all revenue passengers. Air Canada adds that the names Mrs. Pelletier's daughter heard at Gate 78 were other inconvenienced passengers such as herself and her mother.
Air Canada submits that its Irregular Operations Policy provides for hotel accommodation where flights are cancelled and no alternate travel arrangements can be made to transport passengers before the next day. In this case, however, Mrs. Pelletier and her daughter were able to travel on the same day. Air Canada adds that had Mrs. Pelletier's daughter requested overnight accommodation, or meal vouchers, it would most likely have agreed in light of her mother's condition.
Air Canada has apologized to Mrs. Pelletier and her daughter and expressed sincere regret for not being able to offer the normal level of customer service. Further, it has awarded 15,000 Aeroplan miles to Mrs. Pelletier's daughter as a gesture of goodwill for any inconvenience.
Mrs. Pelletier's daughter is of the opinion that Air Canada has demonstrated a complete lack of concern for elderly/mobility restricted passengers, both at the airports and in the way it treated her complaint. She believes that Air Canada's letters of apology did not recognize the seriousness of the situation, nor did they express genuine regret and concern. Moreover, Air Canada failed to explain why it had been prevented from providing the requested assistance. In her opinion, it was due to a lack of communication and organization, especially as the special service request had been on file for months prior to travel.
ANALYSIS AND FINDINGS
In making its findings, the Agency has considered all of the evidence on file submitted by the parties during the pleadings.
Pursuant to section 151 of the Air Transportation Regulations, SOR/88-58, as amended (hereinafter the ATR), air carriers are required to provide the services set out in section 147 where a request is made at least 48 hours before the scheduled time of departure of a flight.
Furthermore, section 147 of the ATR states, in part, that an air carrier shall provide the following services:(...)
(b) assisting in proceeding to the boarding area;
(c) assisting in boarding and deplaning; (...)
With respect to the lack of immediate assistance in Montréal, the Agency notes that carriers generally provide prerequested wheelchair assistance once passengers have identified themselves at the check-in point. The incident at Dorval described by Mrs. Pelletier's daughter occurred prior to checking in. The Agency notes, however, that once she did approach an Air Canada representative, the requested wheelchair assistance was provided. The Agency, therefore, cannot determine that Air Canada has contravened sections 151 and 147 of the ATR in this case.
The Agency finds, however, that Air Canada failed to meet the above-noted requirements of the ATR in Toronto and Vancouver as no wheelchair assistance was provided for deplaning Mrs. Pelletier. Furthermore, Air Canada personnel in Toronto did not provide assistance to Mrs. Pelletier in proceeding to the various boarding gates.
The Agency notes that the circumstances in Toronto were exceptional at the time Mrs. Pelletier and her daughter were travelling as activities at Lester B. Pearson International Airport were disrupted due to a major snowstorm. The airport was heavily congested, and there was a backlog of passengers to process due to flight cancellations, late arrivals and departures, etc. While the situation at the airport may have been chaotic and the flight change unexpected, the Agency is nonetheless of the opinion that airline personnel should have consulted the passenger manifest and been aware of the special service that had been requested by Mrs. Pelletier well ahead of the prescribed time limit set out in section 151 of the ATR. While a wheelchair may not have been immediately available at the aircraft door, airline personnel should have explained the situation to Mrs. Pelletier, and advised her to wait until a wheelchair was provided.
With respect to the service failure in Vancouver, the Agency is of the opinion that a wheelchair should have been provided in a timely manner from the aircraft door to the electric cart, especially as the special service request was well documented and the information had been conveyed to all Air Canada stations involved. While conditions that prevailed in Toronto may have affected flight schedules, Air Canada failed to provide an explanation for the service failure in Vancouver.
In light of the above, the Agency finds that Air Canada contravened paragraphs 147(1)(b) and (c) of the ATR.
The Agency finds that the lack of immediate wheelchair assistance in Toronto and Vancouver constituted an obstacle to Mrs. Pelletier's mobility. In the first case her daughter had to seek assistance causing both passengers hardship and frustration. In the second case, Mrs. Pelletier had to walk a long distance from the aircraft to an electric cart. The Agency deems the obstacle to have been undue as it could easily have been avoided if personnel had verified Mrs. Pelletier's PNR and provided a wheelchair at the aircraft door in both instances.
The Agency recognizes that the flight delays and gate changes were an inconvenience and a source of frustration and exhaustion. Further, the problem was compounded by the weather conditions that prevailed in Toronto. While the Agency finds that this situation did constitute an obstacle, it was one with which all travellers were confronted.
The Agency notes that according to its Irregular Operations Policy, Air Canada does provide meal vouchers and hotel accommodation to stranded passengers in certain circumstances, and that Mrs. Pelletier and her daughter could have been provided with such services had they identified themselves and requested them.
Based on the above findings, the Agency finds that Air Canada has contravened the provisions of section 147 of the ATR as its personnel did not provide the prerequested services and failed to make reasonable efforts to accommodate Mrs. Pelletier, thereby creating an undue obstacle to her mobility.
Air Canada should be aware that the Agency considers contraventions of the provisions of the ATR to be serious and will take appropriate action should any such contraventions occur in the future.
The Agency stresses the importance for airline personnel to be continuously aware of the requirements of the ATR with respect to the carriage of persons with disabilities in view of eliminating undue obstacles to their mobility. The Agency requires Air Canada to convey the incidents described herein to its personnel and take the necessary steps in order to remind them of their responsibilities.