A Halifax man who uses a wheelchair is calling out WestJet for giving him the runaround and being ill-equipped to accommodate his disability.
Connor Hirtle, who is a C6 quadriplegic and requires the assistance of a caregiver, was travelling back to Halifax on Sunday after a weekend with friends in Toronto.
He says he arrived at the airport an hour and a half before his flight was set to take off, but was subjected to a lengthy search by airport security.
“All my bags got searched. We each had a carry on, each of us, my medical bag … all of it was for some reason thoroughly searched,” Hirtle told Global News. “That took up an easy 45 minutes, but two WestJet representatives came to security and advised me, ‘We’ll wait for you.’”
Hirtle says he was at the gate about 10 minutes prior to his flight, but a manager with WestJet told him he wasn’t allowed to board.
“We sat there for probably 10 or 15 minutes watching the plane, just sitting there at the gate,” said Hirtle. “There were three other ladies that (WestJet) wouldn’t allow on either.”
After the flight departed, Hirtle and his caregiver booked the next flight available to Halifax. The flight included a layover in Ottawa, which Hirtle says makes travel even more difficult, as he frequently has to get in and out of his chair.
He called WestJet and tried to get his money back, but was told that wouldn’t happen.
“She just explained this was a basic fare flight, we can’t really change it for you, we can’t supply you with another flight,” he said.
Hirtle is a part of a special program with WestJet that gives him a little extra seating room. But Hirtle says that was ignored on both the flight to Ottawa and Halifax, and he was seated in sections of the planes with little to no leg room.
Hirtle also noted that his flight from Ottawa to Halifax experienced a delay, as flight attendants were waiting for a mother and her son to board.
“Which was perfectly fine, I don’t mind waiting at all,” said Hirtle, “but it was just the fact that (WestJet) just told me in Toronto that we weren’t allowed to do that.”
When Hirtle travels, he brings a second wheelchair that he uses to shower. That wheelchair, Hirtle says, ended up on his original flight. His other wheelchair received partial damage to his brake and wheels.
“I expect some, with how airports and companies handle your luggage. It’s just this a bit more fragile, which they even mark on, but this time I guess they just didn’t care,” he said.
After speaking with several different WestJet communications representatives and receiving the same response, Hirtle turned to social media to express his frustrations.
His Facebook post was shared hundreds of times, with many others calling for Hirtle to get his money back.
“People are sort of disgusted with what went on,” Hirtle said. “I don’t usually do that, but I’ve been on many flights and never had this issue.”
“I just went through too much on this flight to not do something about it. It just bothered me quite a bit,” he said.
In an emailed statement to Global News, WestJet called the situation “unfortunate” and stated they are reaching out to Hirtle to “again offer our apologies along with a further explanation on our policies.”
The company would not, however, confirm whether he would receive a refund.
“As we take all claims of this nature very seriously, our team will also ensure that any mobility device damage claim is expediently processed,” the statement reads. “While we recognize this situation was disappointing, to ensure we meet the needs of guests requiring special assistance we do request at least 48 hours of advance notice to ensure we support those requests.”
WestJet added that guests are encouraged to be present at their gate at least 40 minutes prior to departure, as their cut-off time for boarding is 10 minutes prior to any scheduled departure.
“Since we operate over 700 flights daily, understandably any delay can impact thousands of guests and our policies are in place to ensure we offer a consistent experience across our network,” the statement adds.
‘It was entirely unreasonable’
Air passenger rights activist Gabor Lukacs says Hirtle’s situation with WestJet speaks to a larger problem that people with disabilities have to deal with whenever they fly.
“I was appalled to see a man with a disability being treated this way,” Lukacs said. “This type of treatment is way too common when it comes to flying.”
“Persons with disabilities are at a great disadvantage and they don’t get the treatment they are required to receive under the law.”
Lukacs says WestJet treated Hirtle poorly from both a legal and common sense perspective.
“It was unreasonable. Ten minutes is the cut-off in such situations, my understanding is (Hirtle) presented himself right at the 10-minute mark at the gate,” said Lukacs. “It was entirely unreasonable to not fly him out on the flight in which he held booking.”
Lukacs notes that the airline bears some responsibility when a passenger shows up to security under their own recommended timeline.
“The airline does have a way to prioritize passengers in security,” he said. “The airline cannot be expected to hold the flight, but in this situation it would have made sense.”
“Certainly charging the passenger an extra fee for something that is entirely outside of his control, none of his fault, it was utterly wrong.”