Dozens of travellers with disabilities report injuries, damaged wheelchairs while flying | CBC News

Dozens of travellers with disabilities report injuries, damaged wheelchairs while flying | CBC News

WARNING: This story contains an image of an injury that some may find distressing.

In April, Phil and Lisa Gilliard set out from their home in Prince George, B.C., to Vancouver, where Phil was receiving an award with the ALS Society of British Columbia.

Phil, 74, has primary lateral sclerosis, a rare disease that affects fewer than 50 people in B.C. As a result he is non-verbal, and uses a wheelchair to get around.

The Gilliards enjoyed the ceremony and the support from the ALS community. But the trip took a turn on their return flight home.

Lisa said WestJet crew didn’t know how to operate the eagle lift Phil needed to get into his seat, and almost dropped him as they tried to transfer him. They eventually moved him out of the airplane and then re-boarded him using a different piece of equipment.

Back home in Prince George, as Lisa helped Phil change his clothes, she noticed a bloody wound on his elbow surrounded by purple bruises. Because Phil is non-verbal, he hadn’t been able to communicate he’d been hurt.

“I took off his coat, his long-sleeve shirt, and it was all bashed. I can’t believe they took several layers of skin off,” said Lisa.

“I was like, come on, nobody is trained? I know how to run a portable lift. I don’t understand, for an international airport, that they don’t have people that are trained for that.”

Phil Gilliard, 74, suffered this injury while being boarded onto a flight in Vancouver. Because Phil is non-verbal, he wasn’t able to communicate that he’d been hurt. (Submitted by Lisa Gilliard)

The Gilliards filed a complaint with WestJet and wrote to the CEO of Vancouver International Airport, but received no response. WestJet said because the couple did not save their boarding confirmation number, they could not provide more information about the case.

Their story is one of dozens received by CBC News from wheelchair users who say they’ve been mistreated by airlines, some dating back to the late ’80s. Some passengers shared stories of mobility devices damaged or forgotten in transit. Others like Phil described injuries sustained during transfers.

One man said he looked out the plane window and saw his mobility aid worth $21,000 flipped upside down on the tarmac.

Another said upon landing in Barbados on an Air Canada flight, his wife had to be lifted by other passengers into a bus on the tarmac, then had to crawl off the bus once they arrived at the terminal. In response, Air Canada offered the couple 100,000 Aeroplan points.

A common refrain CBC News heard in those experiences: a need for better training, and a change in attitude toward people with disabilities and the mobility equipment they need.

Last week, Air Canada was summoned to Ottawa by the transport minister after a man with spastic cerebral palsy was forced to drag himself off an Air Canada flight in Las Vegas. The incident garnered international attention and triggered an investigation by the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA).

Gábor Lukács, president of Air Passenger Rights, said he believes it will take major policy reform to change how airlines manage mobility devices and the transferring of passengers, and that there is currently no clear regulatory framework holding airlines accountable.

“There is no clear language to say, if an airline leaves behind a mobility aid, this is the fine that they will face,” he said.

“We are talking about six-digit figures that would be needed to change the attitude.”

Lack of data

Canadian airlines are subject to the Accessible Transportation for Persons with Disabilities regulations, which state airlines must prioritize transporting mobility aids in cases where some luggage must be left behind.

But Lukács said mobility aids should be seen as an extension of a person’s body, rather than as another piece of luggage. He said damage to a mobility aid is more comparable to a personal injury like the one faced by Phil.

“For passengers with disabilities, mobility aids are an extension of their bodies,” he said.

“What regulations miss if you have an individual scooter with custom pads made for your body and nobody else — if your scooter doesn’t arrive, and you get something temporary, you may end up with pressure sores, something that an able-bodied person wouldn’t [face].”

Lukács said one issue preventing change is a lack of available data on how many incidents occur in a year. Many passengers file their complaints with airports rather than airlines. Some, like the Gilliards, never hear back.

Data shared by the CTA reveals that in the 2022-23 reporting period, the authority received 197 complaints about accessibility on flights, including 54 about mobility aids, and 46 related to assistance issues. A total of 975 complaints about accessibility have been filed with the agency since 2018.

WATCH | Mother voices frustration over treatment of people with disabilities on flights:

Mother shares frustrations over Air Canada’s treatment of people with disabilities

Featured VideoIn light of recent criticism over Air Canada’s treatment of people with disabilities we spoke to someone with first-hand experience. In 2010, Air Canada damaged the wheelchair of Chrissie Bawn’s son, Tanner Bawn, confining him to his hotel room for several days. She speaks about their experience and her frustrations that the airline hasn’t done more to address issues over the years.

In August, Air Canada was fined $50,000 for failing “to provide a temporary replacement mobility aid that met the mobility needs of a person with a disability who did not retain their mobility aid during their flight and which was not made available to the person at their arrival.”

In cases previously reported by CBC News, passengers who complained were offered flight vouchers worth $500 to $2,000.

Lisa said she thought she would at least receive an apology from the airline after sharing photos of Phil’s injuries, which took weeks to heal.

“I feel they just don’t care. I think they wanted us just to go away, which we did,” she said.

“They need to do better, that’s what I want to see.”

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