When I decided to take my first trip as a power wheelchair user in 2014, one of the first questions I asked was, will my wheelchair fit on the airplane? As a lifelong aviation geek, I knew to ask that question because airplanes vary in size and some are quite small! Today, wheelchair users from around the world compare the dimensions of their mobility devices against my List of Airplane Cargo Door Sizes for Wheelchair Users. Wheelchairs must fit upright in the airplane cargo hold in order to fly safely.
It seems reasonable that, for a wheelchair to fly, it must fit on the aircraft. But a new ruling from the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) presents a different perspective, that airlines have a choice in the aircraft they purchase, and that carriers are responsible for providing accessible transportation everywhere they fly. That’s refreshing!
In 2016, Tim Rose, a Toronto-based disability consultant sought to fly with Air Canada from Toronto to Cleveland, Ohio. The airline denied him transportation because his wheelchair would not fit into the airplane cargo hold. He was ultimately forced to drive, and turned to the CTA for redress.
A three-member panel, which included CTA Vice President Elizabeth C. Barker and Agency Members Heather Smith and Mary Tobin Oates, ruled that Air Canada had failed to properly plan for the needs of disabled travelers when purchasing smaller aircraft types and planning its route network. The panel directed the airline to implement corrective measures to ensure compliance with Canadian accessibility law. The order states that, by December 20, 2023, Air Canada must:
a) when provided with at least 21 calendar days’ advance notice by Mr. Rose or any other person who uses a power wheelchair that cannot be collapsed to fit within the cargo door of the aircraft scheduled for their flight, to transport the passenger, with their power wheelchair:
- on the day they wish to travel, at a time that reasonably compares to the time they wish to travel;
- if this is not reasonably possible, on the day before or the day after they wish to travel.
Air Canada can choose what measures it will deploy to provide accommodation, but these measures should include, at a minimum:
- to attempt to find a similar flight or flights on a different but comparable route within its network;
- to attempt to find a similar flight or flights with another carrier on the same route or on a different but comparable route; or
- to substitute an accessible aircraft on the chosen flight where Air Canada cannot accommodate the passenger in any other reasonable way.
If Air Canada chooses to provide accommodation through a flight or flights with another carrier, it must pay for any price difference.
The order has not yet been published in the Agency’s public archive, however it is available for download from the ARCH Disability Law Centre. While this ruling applies at first only to Air Canada, it is not unreasonable to expect that it could later be extended to other carriers which provide service to, from, and/or within the country, including U.S. airlines.
This decision could work to accelerate the inclusion of a wheelchair space on airplanes — the ability for wheelchair users to fly should not be limited by the size of an airplane’s cargo hold. The CTA’s ruling has confirmed that, in 2023, some smaller aircraft types do not meet the requisite standards for accessibility and inclusion. Airlines purchase inaccessible airframes at their own risk, and could be forced to abandon them entirely as more disabled people take to the skies. By increasing the cost of inaccessibility for air carriers, the CTA has added yet another incentive for airlines to do the right thing.