News | Disabled airline passengers get a second seat

The major Canadian airlines will be required to offer disabled and obese passengers a second seat at no charge if required for medical reasons.

The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by Air Canada, its regional carrier Jazz, and WestJet to overturn a Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) ruling requiring implementation of the policy by January 10.

The ruling only affects domestic flights, and only applies to the three carriers, but many believe cases against other airlines will easily succeed if a nation-wide policy is not instituted.

Air Canada and WestJet both said they would comply with the ruling.

Difficulty in drafting a policy stems from the fact that some of those individuals who are requesting an extra free seat are considered to be obese, and there has been controversy over what constitutes clinically-defined obesity.

Yoni Freedhoff, Director of the Bariatric Medical Institute and an expert consultant for the Canadian Obesity Network, explained that categorizations for obesity vary.

“Class III obesity would be a BMI over 40, class I is over 30. [But] in India [for example], it’s classified as a BMI over 25,” he said, adding that countries have varying standards because they have different definitions of health.

Problems also arise when one considers that not all people who are considered to be obese are disabled because they are mobile and can function without aid.

“There are people who are at a certain weight who are functioning and have no disability,” said Freedhoff.

Regardless of whether or not they are functioning or require assistance, many people do not consider obesity a disability. The justification is that a person’s obesity was most likely caused by a behaviour, unlike someone who is disabled who cannot perceptibly help their situation.

Freedhoff was frustrated by this attitude.

“Causality is not the issue at hand. They should certainly qualify for the same benefits that another disabled person will have,” he said. “People seem to have this belief that causality matters. I don’t think people would ask the spinal cord patient whether or not they were driving drunk.”

Complication also arises in deciding who sets the standard for obese customers receiving extra seats on planes.

“At what point and how will you decide who will be the arbiter of whether or not a person’s obesity qualifies as disabled?” asked Freedhoff.

This uncertainty is reflected in the difficulty airlines have had with defining standards for disabled persons to receive their extra free seat.

“We are trying to develop some sort of criteria. I will admit that is challenging, [because] it’s up to the airlines to develop this criteria,” said Robert Palmer, Manager of Public Relations at WestJet.

Because WestJet executives are not obesity experts, the airline has sought consultation from outside professionals and group

s on how to implement the policy, including the CTA and the disability advocacy group Easter Seals.

Reflected in the difficulty of finding an acceptable definition of disability is evidence of a deep-seated social bias against individuals who are considered to be obese, said Freedhoff.

“[It’s an] incredible example of the last form of socially-acceptable stereotypes.”

Stereotypes are constantly perpetuated by the media and social discourse surrounding the issue, according to Freedhoff, .

It is uncertain as of now what conclusion the airlines will come to, but Palmer made it clear that the customer is very important to his company, and care will be made to accommodate all individuals.


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