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Disabled win in airline ruling, companion can travel for free

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For today's Toronto Star:

"Domestic airlines can't charge severely disabled extra fares for their caregivers or more seats

Jan 11, 2008 04:30 AM
TESS KALINOWSKI
TRANSPORTATION REPORTER

In what's being called a "landmark victory" for Canadians with disabilities, domestic airlines will no longer be allowed to charge extra fares for severely disabled people who need to travel with a caregiver or require more than one seat on a plane.
The ruling, released yesterday by the Canadian Transportation Agency, also means those who are severely disabled by obesity will no longer have to squeeze into a single seat or pay more for extra space.
The decision does not extend, however, to obese people who are merely uncomfortable in an aircraft seat, said an agency spokesperson. Nor does it apply to those who want to travel with a companion for personal reasons or people who require caregiver assistance on the ground but not on the plane.
The decision is "a vindication of the rights of persons with disabilities," said David Baker, lawyer for the complainants.
The Council of Canadians with Disabilities, Joanne Neubauer of Victoria, who has severe rheumatoid arthritis, and Eric Norman, who flew from Newfoundland to Toronto for cancer treatment before his death about 18 months ago, launched the complaint in 2002.
People with disabilities say they are among the least able to afford the extra fares airlines charge them for additional seat space or their personal caregivers, who assist them during the flight with seating, feeding and using the toilet.
"Canadians can be proud and I'm proud to be Canadian when rights are fulfilled," said a jubilant Neubauer, who needs a caregiver when she flies, but seldom does so because of the cost of an extra ticket.
The number of severely disabled people is growing as the population ages and as people with disabilities are aging and no longer able to live independently, said Sandra Carpenter of the Centre for Independent Living in Toronto.
The transportation agency said only about 10 per cent of severely disabled and obese people are likely to travel by air, compared with 19 per cent of the overall population.
The airlines failed to prove that the one-person-one-fare policy would cause them undue financial hardship, according to the agency. It says the new policy, standard for years on buses, trains and ferries, will cost about 1 per cent of Air Canada's $8.2 billion annual ticket revenues and 0.16 per cent of WestJet's returns of $1.4 billion.
Air Canada, Air Canada Jazz and WestJet have a year to come up with medical criteria and implement the policy.
WestJet and Air Canada declined to comment yesterday.
It's not clear how the decision will affect the outcome of a complaint to the agency by Linda McKay-Panos, 56, of Calgary, who in 1997 suffered bruising and humiliation on a flight to Ottawa.
The lawyer maintains her obesity, caused by a hormonal condition, constitutes a disability. Her complaint was rejected by the transportation agency but a federal court ruled that the agency must reconsider. That decision was stayed until after yesterday's ruling."

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