Business

Non-binary passengers call out airlines for not offering a 3rd gender option when booking flights

Non-binary Canadians are upset many Canadian airlines still don't offer passengers a gender-neutral "X" option when booking flights online. Instead, they must choose male or female. The airlines are promising change.

Airlines say they're working on it, but non-binary passengers say they're frustrated by the long wait

Since 2018, passengers booking flights with Porter Airlines have been able to choose the X gender designation instead of male or female. (Porter Airlines)

Social media is full of posts this month by Canadian airlines celebrating pride. There's a WestJet TikTok video showing a plane flying over a rainbow, Sunwing and Air Transat tweets promoting LGBTQ vacation hot spots and, on Instagram, Flair Airlines is wishing everyone "Happy Pride."

But non-binary Canadians with travel plans feel excluded from those Pride celebrations. 

That's because the airlines still don't offer passengers a gender-neutral X option when booking flights online. Instead, they must choose male or female. The airlines are promising change, but some transgender advocates, including Gemma Hickey of St. John's, N.L., say they're getting fed up with the wait. 

"It's very hypocritical for these airlines to be promoting inclusivity and celebrating pride when they're marginalizing a group of us within that community who, for a long time, have existed on the fringes," said Hickey.

As a non-binary person, Hickey uses the pronoun they and doesn't identify exclusively as male or female. 

Gemma Hickey of St. John's, N.L., received a Canadian passport with an X gender designation in 2018. They're still waiting for many airlines to adopt the gender category. (Submitted by Gemma Hickey)

In 2017, the federal government introduced a third, X gender designation for passports. Hickey received one the following year and immediately began lobbying Canada's major airlines to adopt the X option as well. 

"They've had time to make the changes," said Hickey. "It feels like I'm not part of society. I'm not represented."

That's how Iz Lloyd felt when flying with WestJet last month from Calgary to Halifax. Lloyd, who is non-binary, said they were forced to identify as male or female to book their flight and check in online. 

Lloyd, who has an X gender designation on their passport, said they learned at the airport that people who identify as non-binary must show up in person to check in. 

"If men had to check in at the gate and they couldn't check in online, people would lose their mind … but the trans community is expected to put up with it."

Iz Lloyd of Halifax, who is non-binary, asked WestJet to remove its posts on social media about pride month after Lloyd was forced to choose a male or female designation to board a flight. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

The following week, Lloyd asked WestJet to pull its social media posts about pride. The posts, however, remain online. 

"Companies are really bad with rainbow washing of, you know, 'We're so inclusive, we're so good, look at us, give us money, like, we are the best,'" said Lloyd. "But if you aren't actually putting in the work, you don't get to say that."

According to 2021 census data, 0.33 per cent of Canadians, or about one in 300 people, identify as transgender or non-binary. Roughly 41,355 of the more than 30 million people who responded to the census identified as non-binary.

Why do airlines ask for your gender?

Transport Canada told CBC News that airlines need to identify passengers' gender for security reasons and to estimate their weight to determine whether an aircraft is safe to fly. 

However, Transport Canada said the government accepts gender-neutral designations and recommends that airlines assign a standard male weight to passengers using such a designation. 

Porter Airlines added the X option in 2018, United in 2019 and American Airlines in 2020

"There's no excuse," said Hickey about the airlines that have yet to follow suit. "We have the documentation."

WestJet and Flair Airlines told CBC News they're working on changing their booking systems and should have a gender-neutral option in place by the end of the year. Air Transat said it has similar plans. 

Both Air Transat and WestJet said the changes required are complex and blamed the delay on the pandemic. 

"While we have encountered several unexpected roadblocks ... we are committed to rectifying these issues to stay true to our goals of creating an inclusive environment for everyone," said WestJet in a statement

Sunwing said it too is updating its reservation system to include an X option, and, in the meantime, passengers can call in to get the designation, or change it online, after their flight has been booked. 

The airline did not respond to a question about how it makes passengers aware of these options.

What about Air Canada?

Air Canada said that in November 2019, it introduced a gender-neutral "undisclosed" option for booking flights online.

That was news to Hickey who recently booked an Air Canada flight by phone. After CBC News notified Hickey, they called the airline again and changed their gender designation to "undisclosed." 

Hickey was glad to make the change but said they would prefer the "X" option.

"I'm happy to disclose my gender, and so 'undisclosed' to me, it's … not the right thing."

WATCH | Airlines called out for offering no gender-neutral option: 

Airlines accused of ‘rainbow washing,’ while only offering 2 gender options

3 months ago
Duration 2:05
Some Canadian airlines are being accused of “rainbow washing” by the trans community for celebrating Pride month, but only offering male and female as gender options for bookings. WestJet and Flair say they’re working to allow a gender neutral option.

Air Canada spokesperson, Peter Fitzpatrick said the airline plans to introduce the X option soon and aims to add gender-neutral options at check-in next month.

"Adding these options is a complex task and it has really only been made possible by the relatively recent installation of a whole new reservation system," Fitzpatrick wrote in an email. 

Hickey hopes that next year, all the airlines' gender options will align with their pride marketing.

"It remains to be seen if these changes will be made. I look forward to the day that they do, and I'll certainly keep holding their feet to the fire until the day comes."

Lloyd said they would like to see the federal government step in to ensure airlines incorporate the X gender category.

"If it is a legal marker, it needs to be followed," they said. "The government should be putting in some baseline rules."

Transport Canada said it does not regulate airlines' booking and check-in systems. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won an Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

With files from CBC's Feleshia Chandler

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