'Appalling treatment': Couple in wheelchairs left alone for almost 12 hours at Vancouver airport
Airlines are shirking responsibility to accommodate disabled passengers, advocate says
The son of an elderly couple says he wants two major airlines to stop blaming each other and take responsibility for abandoning his parents in their wheelchairs for half a day, with no help to access food, water or a washroom.
Mohan Karki's parents, who don't speak English and require assistance to travel, were found almost 12 hours after being dropped off at a service counter at the Vancouver airport — just not by the airlines responsible for assisting them during their trip, WestJet and Cathay Pacific.
"We were thinking they were somewhere in the corner of the airport ... not knowing where to go," said Karki. "My parents told me, 'We never left this place' … 12 hours they were there. They tried to communicate with some other people, passersby, and nobody responded to them. Maybe they couldn't understand what they were saying."
On Feb. 23, Chhaya and Narayan Karki, aged 66 and 69, were on the final leg of a trip from their home in Kathmandu, Nepal, to visit their son and his family in Edmonton, with a stopover in Vancouver.
Mohan Karki said Cathay Pacific told him it delivered his parents to the WestJet customer service counter at the airport, and WestJet was to transport the pair to the gate for their final flight to Edmonton.
When his parents failed to arrive, a worried Karki spent hours on the phone trying to track them down. They didn't have a cellphone. "For about six or seven hours, I kept on calling both airlines, but they never found my parents," he said.
Karki then called the RCMP. It took officers 20 minutes to find the couple, located just steps from the service counter.
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The couple had placards with Karki's name and phone number, in case of an emergency. No one responded when they tried to get help by holding them up, he said.
According to an Ontario-based advocate for people with disabilities, services for those who need assistance travelling are "unreliable and inconsistent" because airlines are allowed to set their own rules — instead of being told to meet specific standards.
"It is appalling treatment … the regulator should make it clear that [airlines] can't pass the buck to each other," said David Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance.
Left at the wrong gate for 8 hours
Thanh Phan shares that frustration; the same thing happened to his 76-year-old mother at the same airport.
In August, Niem Thi Le, who has trouble walking and doesn't speak English, was left in a wheelchair for eight hours after being dropped off at the wrong departure gate by WestJet.
Le was on her way home to Hanoi, Vietnam, after visiting family in Victoria. WestJet was supposed to connect her with China Southern Airlines for her next flight.
"My mom told me that the wheelchair attendant just left her there without talking to anyone.… I was shocked … this is a human being," Phan said.
An employee with another airline eventually noticed Le sitting alone, found someone who could speak Vietnamese and brought the woman to the China Southern Airlines counter.
That airline contacted Phan and suggested he call WestJet to find out what happened. He did, asking if someone could help his mother until he could get there himself.
"I said, 'Could you please help her give her some food and drinks.'... They said, no, they didn't do anything wrong and that's not their business," Phan said.
He called China Southern Airlines back and it agreed to help, bringing Le a hamburger and a drink.
'They did not think it's a serious problem'
Phan complained to customer service and WestJet apologized, saying it would review its internal process. But he said the airline never got back to him to explain what happened.
WestJet also told him travellers who don't speak English shouldn't be travelling alone, he said, though they offered him a $100 travel voucher.
"It's very frustrating because they blame passengers, and they did not think that is a serious problem."
WestJet 'reaching out to the families involved'
Both Phan and Karki are still demanding an explanation from the airlines involved in their respective cases.
"We sincerely apologize for the stress and worry that these guests and their families experienced," WestJet's media relations manager Lauren Stewart wrote in an email to Go Public.
"The nature of these incidents is serious, and we are in touch with both airline partners involved to investigate and make enhancements to our processes to prevent this type of incident from happening again. We are also reaching out to the families involved."
The airline says it provides mobility assistance to more than 900 guests per day.
Cathay Pacific told Go Public it was sorry to hear what happened to the Karkis, adding it followed "standard operating procedure" when it delivered the couple to WestJet staff and exchanged wheelchairs.
"The proper turnover to WestJet was made by our staff. Additionally, we are in the process of reviewing this situation with WestJet and we will apply learnings from this experience to future transitions between our airlines," wrote Julie Jarratt, the airline's communications director.
'I dread entering Canadian airspace'
Lepofsky, who is blind, said he's had his own problems travelling. "I dread entering Canadian airspace if I'm travelling alone … not because the service is always bad, but because it's not reliably and consistently good."
Airlines have a duty to accommodate passengers with disabilities under Canada's human rights laws, he said. But when that doesn't happen, it's tough to figure out where to turn for help.
"There are multiple agencies involved," Lepofsky said. "The Canadian Human Rights Commission, the Canadian Transportation Agency — and you could be kicked from one to the other, trying to figure out where you're supposed to go.
"The Canadian Transportation Agency, where you're often kicked to, does not, from the perspective of people with disabilities, have a good track record in this area."
Proposed rules require airlines to take responsibility
The CTA says it's aware some of the standards are out of date and a binding set of rules is needed. Until now, accessible transportation has been governed by mostly voluntary codes of practice.
The agency has proposed new accessible transportation regulations for airlines and all travel providers. The new rules would be legally binding and impose penalties up to $25,000 for non-compliance. And if another proposed law passes, the Accessible Canada Act, that fine could jump to a maximum of $250,000.
"They need to make sure that passengers don't fall between the cracks," said Scott Streiner, chair and CEO of the Canadian Transportation Agency.
Under the CTA's proposed rules, airlines would have to provide people who need assistance a place to wait, near personnel who can assist them and will "periodically inquire" about the person's needs.
Airports would be responsible for providing assistance from curbside to check-in, while the airlines would be responsible from check-in to boarding.
Streiner said the proposed recommendations would have helped in both cases. The agency plans to have the final regulations published before summer and hopes to have the majority of requirements in place in about a year.
"Persons who require wheelchair assistance, including older Canadians, absolutely are covered by these regulations," Streiner said. "We want to make sure that there's no confusion about who's providing assistance and that people aren't left without assistance."
As for Karki, he said that the next time his parents visit, he won't leave them in the hands of the airlines. Instead, he'll try to match their itinerary with other Nepali-speaking travellers.
After hearing from Go Public, WestJet called Karki last week, promising an explanation once it looks into what went wrong.
Phan said WestJet has yet to follow up with him, adding that his mother is now afraid to travel and will no longer come visit.
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With files from Ana Komnenic