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Damaged wheelchair renews calls for greater regulation of airline disability services

A disability activist whose wheelchair was severely damaged during a recent flight says mobility aids are treated no better than luggage, leading to renewed calls for greater regulation of airline disability services.
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Mobility aids treated no better than luggage on flights, says disability activist. Photo: Metro Creative Connection

TORONTO — A disability activist whose wheelchair was severely damaged during a recent flight says mobility aids are treated no better than luggage, leading to renewed calls for greater regulation of airline disability services. 

Maayan Ziv says her wheelchair was rendered inoperable after an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv, Israel to attend the Access Israel disability conference earlier this month.

Air Canada said that the airline offered to pay for the damages and sent a specialty repair person immediately to Ziv’s hotel. 

“Regrettably, in this case we did not meet our normal service levels. We did respond to this customer's concerns immediately at the airport, including arranging for a specialized wheelchair service to fix the damage,” Air Canada said in an emailed statement.

However, Ziv says that the mishandling of mobility aids happens all too often and that monetary compensation is not enough. 

"For me, that's the bare minimum. What about my time? What about the health of my body, and the amount of trauma that I still experience? Like, I'm not OK," said Ziv. 

"People with disabilities are experiencing this second-class citizen treatment, where our mobility devices are treated like baggage instead of extensions of our bodies, which is what they are."

Activists such as the chair of Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, David Lepofsky, said that Ziv’s story is horrible but not surprising, as there have been a number of reports where mobility devices and passengers were improperly handled by airlines.

“The fact of the matter is, air travel in Canada is not properly supervised, to ensure that it is safe and accessible for people with disabilities,” said Lepofsky. 

If an airline does not meet its obligations and a person has tried to resolve their problem and isn't satisfied with the result, they may file a complaint with the Canadian Transport Agency (CTA) — though a major backlog means travellers could have to wait some time to get a response.

The CTA faced a total of 28,673 complaints for the year up to March 31, including 12,158 new complaints and the carry-over of 16,515 reports from the previous fiscal year. Of the total, about half involved flight disruptions, which have spiked since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After investigating a complaint, the agency can issue a fine up to $250,000 where it finds a transportation service provider has not complied with regulations, said CTA spokesperson Martine Maltais.

Lepofsky says there are several levels to the problem that need fixing and that safeguards should be in place along with federal regulatory changes to increase accountability for the mishandling of passengers with disabilities and their mobility aids.  

Jane Deeks, a spokesperson for Qualtrough’s office met with the CTA on Tuesday and has plans to meet with Air Canada to discuss how they can better enforce existing standards.

“No passenger without a disability would tolerate this kind of treatment,” said Lepofsky. “If you are a walking person and you had to worry every time you got on an airplane whether the airline would break your legs, (that) is not something that you would find acceptable.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 21, 2022.

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Caitlin Yardley, The Canadian Press