Transport agency reprimands Air Canada over ‘paternalistic’ disability policy

VANCOUVER – Canada’s transportation watchdog has chided Air Canada for what it calls a discriminatory policy prohibiting people with certain disabilities from flying alone.

The Canadian Transportation Agency ordered the airline to officially change its guidelines requiring people who are blind and deaf to travel with an attendant.

The ruling came after a complaint filed by Carrie Moffatt, who learned of the policy when she booked a flight from Vancouver to Victoria in September 2013.

Moffatt is legally blind and deaf but can read text and communicate orally by phone. She complained to the transportation agency after Air Canada refused to change its rules.

“When we first encountered this it seemed like it was just something that they’d overlooked, that somebody had just put in place years and years ago and had just forgotten about,” said Amita Vulimiri, a lawyer with Community Legal Assistance Society who provided Moffatt with legal advice.

“But when we did point it out to them we had to litigate for pretty much a year before they agreed to change their policy.”

Deaf-blind people are the only group with a disability that Air Canada defines as exclusively non-self-reliant, meaning they are required to have an attendant.

“A quadriplegic would not have been subject to this type of scrutiny by Air Canada,” Vulimiri said. “It’s only deaf-blind persons.”

Instead of being able to fly alone, Moffatt would have had the responsibility of finding her own attendant to accompany her, her lawyer said.

On flights within Canada, the company provides an extra seat for free, but that is not the case for international flights, she said.

In its April interim decision, the transportation agency found that deaf-blind people have the right to travel independently and to decide for themselves whether they are capable of doing so.

The airline drafted a new policy after the agency ruled earlier this year in Moffatt’s favour and gave Air Canada until Dec. 15 to formalize its policies and procedures and educate employees.

Moffatt said she was disappointed that the process with Air Canada took two years to resolve because the airline refused to change its policies that were clearly discriminatory.

“Deaf-blind people are capable of being independent and living full lives. Air Canada’s policies and practices did not recognize this,” Moffatt said in a statement. “The majority of deaf-blind people do not life in total silence or darkness.”

At the time of the complaint Moffatt was an articling student and asked community legal assistance for help. Now she is a lawyer.

Air Canada has submitted an amended version of its disability policy to the transportation agency but the airline has yet to update the guidelines posted on its website.

Vulimiri said that to her knowledge Air Canada was the only airline in North America to have such a policy.

Air Canada said in a statement that the transportation agency found that the company’s policies meet the needs of those who are partially deaf and blind, but that the written procedures needed to be updated to reflect the actual practice.

Spokeswoman Angela Mah said Air Canada will be adjusting its written procedures to be consistent with its practice, in compliance with the agency’s ruling.

Vulimiri said the airline eventually allowed Moffatt to travel independently on the September flight, in violation of Air Canada polices and only after she was classified her as blind, but not deaf.

Air Canada removed a note from her file saying she had a hearing loss, meaning she was then unable to inform the flight crew of her impairment – information the crew needed, Vulimiri said.