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WestJet vows to do better for guests with disabilities amid complaints

Click to play video: 'WestJet facing criticism after forgetting woman’s wheelchair'
WestJet facing criticism after forgetting woman’s wheelchair
A 73-year-old woman living with Spina Bifida says WestJet did not bring her wheelchair onto her flight from Vancouver to Mexico. As Travis Prasad reports, her troubles did not end when she got the chair back. – Nov 10, 2023

WestJet is investing in a series of initiatives before the summer travel season to improve its services for passengers with disabilities, the airline’s executives said Thursday.

After a series of recent complaints from passengers about mishandled mobility devices, WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech apologized for incidents when the airline let down its customers living with disabilities, and said it is “constantly seeking opportunities” to remove barriers for travel.

“At the end of the day we need to be an organization that delivers good services to our guests… and that we’ll always invest money in,” von Honesbroech said during a House of Commons transport committee hearing on accessible transportation.

“We are sincerely sorry and we are committed in doing better,” he said, adding that the airline has begun taking steps to improve accessibility.

Click to play video: 'B.C. man battles WestJet over damaged wheelchair'
B.C. man battles WestJet over damaged wheelchair

Some of the solutions will be implemented “before summer,” said WestJet’s director of regulatory affairs, Todd Peterson, who also attended the committee.

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WestJet’s first priority is ensuring all wheelchairs are boarded on the same flight as the corresponding guest before take off, Peterson said.

One B.C woman’s experience is the latest reported incident involving a missing mobility device — when the woman’s wheelchair allegedly arrived at her destination of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, days after she flew in on a WestJet aircraft.

WestJet was also accused of losing a Calgary man’s wheelchair on a trip with connecting flights in August.

Von Hoensbroech says that while WestJet is working on updating its technology to improve accessibility, he says a key part of remedying this specific problem is communication with airports, which means ensuring flights do not take off until airports can confirm guests’ wheelchairs are on board.

WestJet has also faced complaints regarding damaged mobility devices, which von Hoensbroech says has mainly been a result of staff with “good intentions” trying to fit them into too-small cargo.

As a solution, he says staff who regularly interact with guests with disabilities are now undergoing mandatory accessibility training.

“I’m pretty confident that the training of our staff is good, however I also recognize that in some cases we’re not as clear as we should be in how to handle some special devices,” von Hoensbroech said.

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In November, a four-year-old Saskatchewan girl’s wheelchair broke on a WestJet flight, leaving her without a mobility device for weeks.

Peterson says WestJet is working on upgrading its services to be able to handle bigger and heavier devices, but he says the airline will also improve how it manages customers’ expectations by being clearer about what its limitations are. First, the airline will need to gain a better understanding of those capabilities, he says.

Click to play video: 'Halifax man blasts WestJet for mistreatment on flight from Toronto'
Halifax man blasts WestJet for mistreatment on flight from Toronto

A former Paralympian was also in an uncomfortable situation with WestJet in November. Sarah Morris-Probert was flying with the airline from Cabo San Lucas home to Kelowna, but when she went to board the flight there was no way for her to get up safely using her wheelchair, leaving her to lift herself up the stairs.

“What was so frustrating and humiliating was that people were all around me watching. Plus, the ramp that we could have used was within 50 metres. And just sitting idly by,” she told Global News.

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According to von Hoensbroech, over 700 guests who fly with WestJet need accessibility support. Of those, 99.9 per cent are satisfied with their services. Still, he says “every single case is one case too many.”

“On the large scale of things, I don’t think we have a cultural problem or attention problem. Having said that, we are an organization made out of humans and sometimes mistakes happen. We take every mistake as an opportunity to improve our service,” von Hoensbroech said.

— with files from Amy Judd and Aaron McArthur.

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