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Toronto woman with disability says flying Air Canada made her feel like an ‘unwanted burden’

A Toronto woman is speaking out about the experience of flying with a disability, saying her most recent flight with Air Canada left her feeling like an “unwanted burden.”

Georgia Pike, a graduate student at York University, says she has travelled in and out of Toronto Pearson Airport many times, but her latest experience was so bad that it prompted her to come forward about “a system that discriminates against people with disabilities.”

“I paid the same amount for my flight as my able-bodied counterparts, yet I and other people with disabilities were treated as unwanted burdens by the Air Canada ground crew,” said Pike, who described herself as visually impaired.

Air Canada says it is reviewing Pike’s case and is committed to providing accessible transportation, but Pike says her trip never should have been so difficult.

“I’m a blind person trying to get from the airport to my home and the amount of barriers that I encountered … it’s degrading.”

Pike was travelling to Toronto from Phoenix, Ariz., on Jan. 31 with her seeing eye dog, Maggie. She says she informed Air Canada staff several times that she needed an escort to follow so that she and her dog could make their way through customs and to her departure gate.

After multiple waits and having to tag along with airport workers pushing other passengers in wheelchairs, she says she was taken part of the way to security. Then, she says, she was left by an airport worker who couldn’t take her any further because she didn’t have priority boarding status and told her the screening area was “over there.”

Pike says she repeated that she is visually impaired and another worker pushing someone in a wheelchair “begrudgingly” allowed her to follow him.

She finally arrived at her gate an hour and half after first checking in.

It would be faster if people ‘just walked,’ staff allegedly said

But when she landed in Toronto, things only got worse, she says.

Pike says she was made to wait until all the able-bodied passengers had gotten off the plane before she could make her way to the front. 

She followed one airline employee for about 20 steps before the worker turned around and said the plane crew had to first deboard so she could lock the doors, Pike said.

Once again, Pike found herself waiting. She says she was the last passenger to leave the plane.

Eventually, she says, she was passed off to another worker who took her to a large open space where several people in wheelchairs were also waiting.

There, she alleges, an airline supervisor said it would be faster if the passengers “just walked.”

“After making it through customs, the airline worker I was following explained that many people in wheelchairs could actually walk and were just using wheelchairs to get ‘priority,'” said Pike. 

“I was stunned.… Clearly, those people in wheelchairs were not getting prioritized for anything.”

At that point, Pike says she spoke up and asked the worker to take her through customs and to a taxi.

Left feeling like a ‘last priority’

After more issues getting through customs, Pike finally got outside with an airport worker escorting her.

But there, the problems continued. Pike says a security guard told her no taxi would take her if her dog wasn’t in a cage. 

“I repeated that I require Maggie to navigate and that it is illegal to deny service to a person with a disability,” she said.

toronto woman with disability says flying air canada made her feel like an unwanted burden
Travellers make their way to the departures terminal at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Pike says she was made to wait until all the able-bodied passengers got off her plane before she could deboard. (Cole Burston/Reuters)

Finally, a car arrived, but the driver told Pike to “carry the dog.” She once again found herself explaining Maggie was a service animal and would go on the floor of the car. 

The entire series of missteps left Pike feeling demoralized, she says. 

“I don’t think it’s fair for disabled people to have to wait until the last minute to be able to be taken through the paces and put on a plane,” Pike said.

“It puts this undue burden on people of, ‘You are a last priority and we are going to do the bare minimum to get you to your gate.'”

Air Canada following up

In a statement to CBC News, Air Canada said it is reviewing Pike’s case and “following up directly with the customer.

“We are committed to providing accessible transportation for all our customers and we have many policies and procedures in place to assist customers who require such assistance,” a spokesperson for the airline said.

On its website, Air Canada says it’s “committed to providing the highest quality of service to all our customers and to making our commitments to customers with disabilities readily available.”

For passengers who require assistance, the airline says it “strongly recommends” contacting its medical assistance desk 48 hours before departure.

Pike did just that, and received a confirmation from the airline about her service request for assistance from check in to the gate, as well as on arrival.

We shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to get the same equal treatment.– Marcia Yale, Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians

Tom Oommen, a spokesperson for the Canadian Transportation Agency, told CBC News its enforcement team is looking into Pike’s experience.

Oommen said the general training requirements for airlines and airports includes “how to interact with persons with disabilities in a manner that respects their autonomy and dignity.” There is also job-specific training that can include how to transfer someone from wheelchair to aircraft seat or handling wheelchairs and mobility aids, for example. 

A passenger who feels a transportation service provider hasn’t treated them the way they are entitled to be treated should contact the provider, and can file a complaint to the CTA if they’re not satisfied or if there’s been no response after 30 days, he said.

The agency will first try to resolve disputes informally but can ultimately issue a legally binding decision and order restitution. 

Lack of accountability a problem, says advocate

Marcia Yale, president of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, said experiences like Pike’s are all too common. Part of the problem, she says, is that there’s not enough staff.

Another problem, she says, is a lack of accountability and clarity about who’s responsible. 

“Is it the airline’s responsibility, is it the terminal’s, the terminal operator’s? The regulations that the Canadian Transportation Agency launched a couple of years ago basically say it’s the terminal operator’s responsibility unless the airline does it.”

Regardless, she says, “We shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to get the same equal treatment. I mean, we are paying the same price.”

Pike says she has filed complaints with Air Canada and the Canadian Transportation Agency but hasn’t heard back from either yet.

“Every time I’m undermined, it’s just like a slap in the face. I’ve worked so hard to get this dog that is well-trained, that is clearly guiding me and yet I’m constantly being questioned,” she said.

“It’s exhausting.”

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