Top court backs free seat ruling for some disabled, obese travellers

The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld a regulatory ruling requiring airlines to offer a free extra seat to certain disabled and obese people.

The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld a regulatory ruling requiring airlines to offer a free extra seat to certain disabled and obese people.

In a decision released without comment Thursday, Canada's top court rejected an application by Air Canada and WestJet for permission to appeal a Canadian Transportation Agency ruling issued earlier this year.

The court's decision means airlines must offer a "one person, one fare" policy to disabled people who require room for an attendant during the flight or require extra room for a wheelchair, or for people who are clinically obese and take up more than one seat.

Bus, train and ferry companies have long agreed to such arrangements, but the airline industry has argued it would lose too much money by doing the same.

The case has wound its way through various agencies and courts for years. It was originally brought forward in 2002 by three parties:

  • Victoria resident Joanne Neubauer, who has rheumatoid arthritis and requires a personal attendant, wheelchair and crutches.
  • Eric Norman, a man from Gander, N.L., who had a rare disease that impaired his motor skills. He has since died. 
  • The Council of Canadians with Disabilities.

Calgary law Prof. Linda McKay-Panos, who was later granted intervener status, has been arguing for the rights of obese travellers since she was charged for 1½ seats on a 1997 Air Canada flight.

McKay-Panos argued anyone who is clinically obese has a disability and should not have to pay for more than one seat. She has polycystic ovary syndrome, an incurable condition that can lead to obesity. 

McKay-Panos said Thursday she was happy with the decision, but her main concern is how the airlines will implement the new regulations.

"I think whatever they do, it has to be done with dignity and not in public and [not be] humiliating or anything like that, and not in front of people on the airplane," she said.

Spokespeople for WestJet and Air Canada said they will comply with the decision.

Questions surrounding decision

But WestJet spokesman Richard Bartrem said there are still many unanswered questions.

"Will we be putting criteria in place to determine whether somebody travels with an attendant out of necessity or out of desire?" he said. "What is morbidly obese? How are we going to be able to make that determination and implement that respectfully, and consistently and fairly?"

In 2006, the agency held public hearings on air travel costs for people with disabilities.

This past January, the CTA ruled airlines must offer a single fare to people with disabilities who require an attendant during the flight and clinically obese passengers. It gave the airlines one year to implement the policy.

WestJet and Air Canada turned to the Supreme Court after the Federal Court of Appeal rejected their bid to appeal the ruling.

With files from the Canadian Press