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Mon, Mar 09, 2009

Canada's Supreme Court Declines To Hear Appeal On Free Seats For Disabled Fliers

Obese Passengers Must Also Be Given Extra Seat

In a judicial precedent that may have implications for US law, Canada's Supreme Court declined Sunday to hear an appeal filed by Air Canada and WestJet, arguing the airlines shouldn't be forced to give disabled and morbidly obese passengers an extra seat for free.

Canada's National Post reports the court's decision not to intervene in the November 2008 ruling ends a six-year legal battle over the "one-person, one fare" pricing strategy... stating in essence that airlines should charge per person onboard their planes, and not per seat.

Both carriers tried to argue that policy would cause undue financial hardship in difficult economic times. The court also declined to hear arguments on a proposal from the Canadian Transportation Agency that would have given the airlines one year to change their policies; as it stands, airlines were required to have new policies in place by January 4 of this year.

The de facto approval of "one person, one fare" was lauded by disabled passengers. "This means I'm equal now," said Joanne Neubauer, who uses a wheelchair due to her severe rheumatoid arthritis. "I'm just so excited and happy that justice prevailed."

The law also requires airlines to provide an extra seat if disabled passengers require a caretaker while on the flight. However, it leaves the carriers freedom to decline such requests if passengers cannot prove the extra person, or space, is a medical necessity.

"The agency is leaving it up to Air Canada and WestJet to develop their own screening policies," said CTA spokesman Marc Comeau.

The case grew out of a 2002 complaint filed with CTA on behalf of a paraplegic cancer patient, who was denied a free ticket for his attendant while traveling to Toronto for treatments.

While few would likely argue with special provisions granted to handicapped or other disabled persons, the requirement to grant a free extra seat to obese fliers is harder to quantify... and, more controversial.

At issue is how obesity is defined. Once again, the Canadian law gives that authority to the airlines -- and says free seats need not be granted to obese passengers who are merely uncomfortable in smallish airline seats, only to those passengers whose obesity is a disability itself.

One possible criteria mentioned is the passenger's ability to lower the seat armrest; if they can't do it due to their size, that passenger would be given a free seat.

Linda McKay-Panos is executive director of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Center. She also has a declaration from the Federal Court of Appeal, stating her obesity -- caused by a preexisting hormonal disorder -- is by law a disability. 

"My hips were flowing over the arm rest, my hips were basically on the lap of the person who sat beside me," McKay-Panos recalled of her last flight onboard Air Canada, in 1997... a flight she describes as "humiliating."

Carriers say the requirement will boost their costs... and passenger ticket fares. CTA estimates show Air Canada will incur a $7.1 million annual hit to change its rules, which works out to 77 cents per ticket. WestJet will pay $1.5 million, or 44 cents per ticket.

FMI: www.cta-otc.gc.ca/index_e.html, www.aircanada.com, www.westjet.ca

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