Airline crews not equipped to deal with disabilities: Checkup caller

Bruce Gilmore has been travelling with a guide dog for over 30 years. He says he sometimes doesn't get the help he needs at the airport despite the air crew's best intentions.
Student guide dog Max, a Golden Retriever puppy, pulls his handler down the aisle of a plane during their training program March 27, 2004 at New Liberty International airport in New Jersey. These training sessions are created by The Seeing Eye, Inc., a philanthropic organization that helps visually impaired adults achieve mobility through the use of guide dogs. (Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

This week, Checkup asked listeners to call in and express their appreciation for - or frustrations with - modern air travel. Vancouver resident Bruce Gilmore has a different type of flying experience from most people. Gilmore is blind, which means he travels everywhere with a guide dog. He has had his fair share of maddening incidents on planes, but says he doesn't blame the crews, as they often receive poor support in helping passengers with disabilities.   

Duncan McCue: So what's been your experience flying these days, Bruce?

Bruce Gilmore: For the background of your callers, I'm totally blind and I've been travelling since 1985 with a guide dog. I'm on my fifth guide dog right now, and I've learned through my air travel that, even though I will tell my airline when I make my initial flight reservation to Toronto or Charlottetown or San Francisco or Atlanta, I get my itinerary confirmed and then I will confirm at the end that I happen to be blind. That I will be travelling with an accredited guide dog and I'll need a meet-and-assist to change flights in Toronto for the flight to Charlottetown, and when I get to Charlottetown I'll need assistance getting baggage and ground transportation. 

How they decide to encode that I don't know, but I believe it's helpful information for the men and women who will be meeting and helping the flights when they land. 

There's a very serious problem with Air Canada. In my case, they're not treating that information as it should be. I don't know what the problem is but I will give that information on the telephone when I make the initial reservation. I will reconfirm at the time of check-in, and when I land in Toronto there's nobody set up to meet and help me get to my continuing flight or take my dog outside to relieve it. And that is an Air Canada problem. 

As a passenger in this case, my stress level is up on top of my guide dog's - and I try not to because it turns out, the man or woman who's meeting the flight is going to do the best they can, based on the information they've been given about how to help. 

Case in point, I was going into San Francisco recently. I landed there and the message had not been transferred. I sat at my arrival gate for one and a half hours before Air Canada was able to get somebody because the staff are so short-staffed they're just pushing and meeting flights all the time. 

I had arrived two hours ahead of a flight to depart. I fly for two hours and then I sit at the gate in San Francisco for one and a half hours. So I'm 5 ½ hours before I've actually even got somebody assisting me now to get my suitcase and my ground transportation. I'm also going to need to find a place to relieve my guide dog. 

As a well-travelled passenger with a lot of travel experience with my guide dog, I now know that the only thing that I've got as a resource when I get to the airport is time. 

What is the airline's responsibility and what is my responsibility when it comes to the fact that they don't want so much as a fingernail in the aisle because they don't want the dog's fingernail to create a tripping hazard to passengers or impede en route service? The passenger sitting beside me is now complaining that they did not pay to have their flying experience compromised by having my guide dog in their feet-space area. I don't know what the answer to that is. 

I do know it's very interesting in the United States now, that if you have a problem on any airline into the United States - whether you're domestic or coming across the border - they've got men and women at the airports now, for each of the airlines, called dispute resolution officers. What's that telling us? These are people who help to mitigate, resolve, look at whatever it is that that person who came off that flight is now managing. I sincerely believe that for every airline employee who's listening - whether you be a terminal employee at YVR or an airline employee - I believe you care about the job you're doing but if you're not being supported by your employer, you can't do a very good job.

Bruce Gilmore's and Duncan McCue's comments have been edited and condensed. This online segment was prepared by Ashley Mak on May 1, 2017.