Airlines lose seat appeal

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Federal regulators in Canada have received a green light from the country’s top court to force major airlines to provide free extra seats to disabled or obese passengers who need them.

 The Supreme Court of Canada, in a decision released without comment today, rejected an application by Air Canada, Air Canada Jazz and WestJet for permission to appeal the move by the Canadian Transportation Agency.

 The court decision, in effect, upholds the agency’s finding that the three carriers were discriminating against the disabled. The agency ordered the companies last January to adopt a policy of “one person, one fare.”

 That would mean, for example, that a disabled person who needs additional room for a wheelchair, or an obese person who needs an additional seat, couldn’t be charged extra.

 It would also mean that, if a disabled person has to be accompanied by an attendant, the attendant would ride for free.

 “This is going to make a huge difference for those people,” said David Baker, the Toronto lawyer who fought the case on behalf of disabled passengers.

 “They are going to be able to travel now. . . . It’s a great thing for people with disabilities, it’s a great thing for Canada.”

 The Council of Canadians with Disabilities, which participated in the case, also welcomed the ruling Thursday.

 “We celebrate this decision and are thrilled to see the removal of another long-standing barrier to our mobility and travel,” said Pat Danforth, speaking for the council.

 The transportation agency’s order technically applies only to Air Canada, Air Canada Jazz and WestJet, but their share of the domestic airline market is estimated at over 90 per cent.

 Baker said the ruling suggests that complaints against other airlines would be virtually certain to succeed. He expressed hope, however, that federal authorities will save people the bother of launching further complaints by simply issuing industry-wide regulations.

 Air Canada and WestJet said they will comply with the transportation agency’s order, which set a deadline of Jan. 9, 2009, for implementing the new policy.

 Both airlines noted, however, that the order applies only to their domestic flights, not to international ones.

 WestJet spokesman Richard Bartem said his airline would consider extending the policy to international flights but hasn’t decided whether to do so. Peter Fitzpatrick of Air Canada said he couldn’t speculate on that point.

 Both carriers also said they will have to develop detailed eligibility rules about precisely what kind of disabilities qualify for free seats and train their staffs on the subject.

 Bus, train and ferry companies have long made arrangements for free extra seats, but the airline industry had argued it would lose too much money by doing the same.

 The transportation agency rejected claims that providing extra seats would impose an “undue hardship” on airlines, saying they can afford the financial burden.

 The agency estimated the cost to Air Canada at abut $7 million a year and to WestJet at about $1.5 million a year. That amounts to about 77 cents a ticket for Air Canada and 44 cents for WestJet.

 To put it another way, the agency said the cost would be 0.09 per cent of Air Canada’s annual passenger revenue and 0.16 per cent of WestJet’s revenue.

 THE CANADIAN PRESS

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