Air Canada Under Scrutiny After Hidden Cameras Reveal Disturbing Treatment of Wheelchair User

Alessia Di Virgilio said she “did not feel safe” during a round trip with Air Canada. (Jenny Cowley/CBC)

In a harrowing sequence of events captured by hidden cameras, an Air Canada passenger, who is dependent on a wheelchair, endured a series of distressing experiences including having her ventilator disconnected and being struck by a lift. This incident adds to a growing number of complaints about the mistreatment of travelers with disabilities, according to a new CBC Marketplace investigation.

Alessia Di Virgilio, a resident of Toronto, who lives with a mobility disability affecting her muscles and lungs, expressed her dismay after the incident, stating, “I did not feel safe.” This alarming account surfaces as Air Canada is summoned by the federal government to discuss the increasing reports of mistreatment faced by wheelchair users.

The CBC Marketplace investigation, which included accompanying Di Virgilio on her Air Canada round trip from Toronto to Charlottetown, revealed numerous issues through hidden-camera footage. Di Virgilio consented to this documentation with the hope of raising awareness about the struggles people with disabilities face when flying.

According to Jeff Preston, an associate professor of disability studies at King’s University College in London, Ontario, and a power wheelchair user himself, such challenges are all too familiar. “This moment of remembering that you don’t have the same rights or the same access as other Canadians, that you are asked to fundamentally live a lesser life because of your difference… it’s your responsibility to fit within this broken system as opposed to the system saying we need to do fundamentally better,” Preston reflected upon viewing the footage.

Di Virgilio said without the support of her custom-built power wheelchair she just tries to find “a moment of comfort.” (Jeremy McDonald/CBC)

Marketplace’s investigation, set to highlight broader accessibility issues within Canada’s transportation systems, has brought attention to Di Virgilio’s plight. From submitting detailed medical information on Air Canada’s “Fitness for Air Travel” form to facing a chaotic scramble for medical clearance at Pearson International Airport, Di Virgilio’s journey was fraught with obstacles even before her flight began.

The ordeal was exacerbated by the requirement for Di Virgilio to be separated from her custom-built wheelchair during the flight, a policy mandated by the Canadian Transportation Agency. On her return trip, the situation reached a critical point at Charlottetown Airport, where Di Virgilio, already disconnected from her ventilator briefly during a transfer in the rain, was ultimately struck by a lift upon arrival in Toronto.

“Sorry, I haven’t used this machine in probably seven years,” an Air Canada staff member was recorded saying, highlighting the lack of proper training. The fear and risk of injury during these transfers, as Preston points out, cannot be overstated.

In response to CBC News inquiries, Air Canada refrained from commenting on Di Virgilio’s specific case but stated that the majority of their customers with mobility needs travel without issues and that they have reached out to apologize to Di Virgilio.

When Di Virgilio was boarding a flight in Charlottetown to Toronto, staff transferred her from her power wheelchair to a narrow aisle wheelchair, outdoors in the rain.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Transportation Agency informed CBC Marketplace that while they cannot comment on individual cases that may come before them, they do prioritize accessibility-related complaints and investigate incidents that could signify regulatory violations.

The experience has left Di Virgilio and advocates like Preston calling for a fundamental change in how Air Canada and regulatory bodies like the CTA handle accessibility, emphasizing the urgent need to translate policies into action.

Di Virgilio’s parting words reflect a plea for tangible change, “I have shared my medical documentation, I’ve given you my body, my experience, my money, my insight, my feedback, and so I would say, now what are you going to do with it?”

Her story not only casts a light on her personal struggles but also underscores the broader systemic challenges faced by travelers with disabilities, compelling a re-examination of the effectiveness of the current systems in place to protect their rights and dignity.