Saturday, 30 March 2013
As a member of Canada’s Paralympic alpine ski team, Caleb Brousseau, a 24-year-old paralyzed from the waist down, has travelled extensively and never encountered a serious mobility problem while flying.
But on a recent trip to Cuba, he says, Toronto-based Sunwing Airlines did not provide him with the necessary equipment to enter or exit the plane in a timely manner, prompting him to crawl the distance between the airplane door and his seat.
Sunwing, however, has concluded after an initial investigation that employees were in the process of retrieving the equipment, and says Brousseau’s version of events differs significantly from their own.
The dispute involves Brousseau’s arrival and departure from Varadero. He alleges that Sunwing failed to supply a narrow specialty wheelchair — used to carry a passenger between the door and seat — within a reasonable period of time.
The trip from Varadero to Toronto on Tuesday was particularly bad, he said, because he was left waiting for the chair, known as a boarding or aisle chair, at the door of the plane for 15 minutes — all the while blocking off the entrance and causing a passenger bottleneck.
He and his girlfriend, Andrea Dziewior, say that when they told a flight attendant Brousseau needed the chair, they were told there wasn’t one in the area.
According to Brousseau, the attendant then proceeded to speak to a nearby airport employee in another language, and was not taking any visible action to get it or providing them with updates about the chair’s whereabouts.
Feeling frustrated, ignored and hopeless about the prospect of getting a chair — and worried about causing a delay for others — Brousseau decided to crawl the short distance to his seat in the second row.
“They weren’t asking me to move to the side, they weren’t doing anything like that, or going and getting it,” Brousseau said in an interview with the Star from his home in Whistler, B.C. “ ‘They obviously want me to board the plane,’ is what went through my head.”
Sunwing president Mark Williams said that while the airline would continue to investigate, it has found that Brousseau’s version is “not consistent with what has been reported in our account of the situation.”
“We were ready and would have been happy to accommodate this passenger’s needs in Varadero,” he said.
Williams said the boarding chairs Brousseau required are readily available at that airport. If one is not immediately available, it wouldn’t take more than two or three minutes to get one, he said.
The chairs can also be brought on planes upon a passenger’s request; Brousseau said he did not ask for the chair to be brought on board.
In the case of the flight from Varadero to Toronto, the airline acknowledges that there wasn’t a boarding chair waiting for Brousseau right away, but that the male flight attendant was in the process of getting one.
Brousseau also claims he had to crawl to an airport-owned wheelchair on the flight from Toronto to Varadero because no boarding chair was available.
One male employee offered to carry him off the plane, Brousseau said — an offer he refused because he could be seriously injured in a fall.
Sunwing contests whether Brousseau had to crawl on the Toronto to Varadero flight, because there is no indication of a problem in the flight record.
“We even called the in-charge flight attendant because there was nothing in the report, and she said if someone had had an issue getting off the aircraft and had to crawl off, it would have absolutely been in her report,” he said.
On the Varadero-Toronto flight, Dziewior snapped a photo of Brousseau while he was crawling so she would have evidence, and alleges the flight attendant tried to stop her from taking it.
Williams said it wasn’t clear from the report if the airline was investigating whether the flight attendant attempted to stop Dziewior from taking a photo.
In general, Williams said, Sunwing is well equipped to meet the needs of passengers with mobility issues, and does so on a regular basis.
Staff is trained in aiding all passengers, including those with mobility issues, when they are hired and at during annual retraining, Williams said.
Brousseau was also upset that, when leaving Varadero, he was asked to leave his wheelchair at the check-in, despite the fact that airlines usually wait until boarding to take it, so passengers can use them inside the terminal.
Brousseau said he accepted that, but was frustrated when there was a long delay to get an airport wheelchair; Dziewior said she finally found one herself because she and Brousseau were concerned about missing the flight.
Williams said every Cuban airport has a policy to take wheelchairs at check-in, because the government wants to inspect each chair before it is loaded on the aircraft.
“It’s certainly possible there might have been a wait to get a wheelchair. I can’t say there wasn’t,” Williams said.
Pat Danforth, who leads the transportation committee for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, said special boarding chairs have become a common service on planes and getting one shouldn’t have been a problem.
She uses a wheelchair and has not encountered an issue accessing the chair while travelling.
“But it just has to happen to you once to make you a lot more hesitant to travel,” Danforth said.
According to the Canadian Transportation Agency, the federal air transportation regulations that include rules about accessibility apply to domestic travel only, meaning the airline is not legally obligated to provide the chair.
“However, carriers are expected to apply the spirit of those regulations to international travel,” said Chantal Laflamme, an agency spokesperson.
Passengers on an international flight can still complain to the agency, and it would investigate.
Brousseau said he plans to launch a formal complaint.