Despite facing a slew of lawsuits, Canada’s busiest airport has given up trying to co-ordinate wheelchair service in its terminals and implemented a system one of its own senior officials once described as a “free for all.”
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) supplies the wheelchairs at designated stations at Pearson International, but the more than 65 airlines that fly out of the airport hire their own staff or subcontractors to help passengers who request assistance.
This has resulted in a lack of co-ordination of wheelchairs and attendants and shortages of both during peak travel times, a CBC News investigation has found.
A half-dozen wheelchair attendants and GTAA volunteers, who spoke to CBC News on condition of anonymity because they fear for their jobs, say travellers are routinely forced to wait for extended periods even if they’ve called ahead to arrange a wheelchair. One attendant told CBC that during the busiest travel times some people could be forced to wait for hours.
The CBC investigation found eight lawsuits since 2011 involving travellers who allege problems with the service at Pearson, primarily shortages of wheelchairs or attendants, led to injuries and even one death.
In each of the eight cases, one of which has been settled, GTAA denied negligence and cross-claimed against the airlines and third-party service providers.
Between 2009 and 2015, the GTAA implemented four different models to deliver wheelchair service for the roughly 80,000 travellers who use the Airport Customer Assistance Program (ACAP) every month.
In its last bid, the GTAA tried to overhaul the service by centralizing it under a single company because public complaints had tripled.
It contracted Toronto Ground Airport Services to deploy all wheelchairs and ACAP staff throughout Pearson to anticipate and manage the constant ebb and flows of travellers.
“The goal was to offer a higher level of service,” GTAA spokesperson Erin Kennedy explained in an emailed statement.
Until this point, Air Canada had been allowed to use its own staff to provide passengers wheelchair assistance.
Air Canada’s 250 dedicated wheelchair attendants, fearing the loss of their jobs, took the matter to arbitration.
During the hearing in May 2015, the GTAA described the wheelchair program as unacceptable, according to the arbitrator’s ruling.
He argued that allowing airlines like Air Canada to pick and choose their own wheelchair providers would be a “free for all.”
Scott Collier, GTAA vice-president of customer and terminal services, testified the GTAA wanted to centralize the program to eliminate ‘gaps’ in the servisse
The labour arbitrator ruled in favour of the Air Canada attendants and ordered the airline to keep its wheelchair attendants on staff.
“Effectively, Air Canada was ordered by the arbitrator to do all it could to keep the wheelchair work in-house,” Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick told CBC in an emailed statement.
The GTAA threw up its hands and decentralized the entire service. The airport granted licences to multiple companies that provide wheelchair services and now leaves it to each airline to choose between “self-staffing or contracting out” — the very “free for all” Collier had warned against.
Union representatives at Pearson say the constant changes and “flipping” of wheelchair contracts have resulted in the service being handled by waves of inexperienced, low-paid workers.
“People are missing their flights because new companies coming up don’t have enough manpower,” said Talwinder Rayat of the International Association of Machinists and Workers, which represents Toronto Ground Airport Services employees. “The new members don’t know what they are doing. They don’t have any experience.”
Sean Smith of the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council, which represents all airport employees, says this is putting the travelling public at risk.
“These are the most vulnerable passengers coming through this building and they are being treated by the most precarious workers,” Smith told CBC, “and that is what has to change.”
Officials from the airport authority declined repeated requests for an interview.
CBC contacted Canada’s other major airports in Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax, which all say airlines deliver the bulk of wheelchair services.
Montreal’s Trudeau airport said it has tested a pilot program to centralize its ACAP services, offering a “one-stop shop” to all airlines. An airport spokesperson said it was successful, but would require “buy in” from all airlines if it were to continue.
The GTAA says that while safe and efficient travel is “paramount,” federal regulations delegate responsibility to airlines.
The Canada Transportation Act, which is administered by the Canadian Transportation Agency, outlines accessibility regulations for air travel. The act requires airlines to provide assistance when requested by a traveller, including wheelchair service.
But regulations vary in other countries. For example, European Union regulations say the responsibility to assist passengers lies with the airport authority.
“Since the managing bodies of airports play a central role in providing services throughout their airports, this global responsibility should be vested in them.”