Airlines can’t seem to safely transport my wheelchair, but they’ve found a way to move horses by air

This First Person column is the experience of Peter Tonge, a disability advocate and consultant based in Winnipeg. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Airline travel can be stressful for anyone, and particularly for a person with a disability. A disabled traveller has the usual concerns, such as scheduling and connections, but also the additional concern about the safety of their mobility equipment. 

Worldwide, airlines have a poor record for safely transporting mobility equipment.

According to a recent CBC story, the Canadian Transportation Agency — the federal air travel regulator — says it has received 247 wheelchair-related air accessibility complaints over the last five years.

But that data only includes complaints to the regulator, and not those when a passenger dealt directly with an airline. 

That same story also cites the Washington Post, which reported that the largest U.S. airlines lost or damaged at least 15,425 mobility devices (wheelchairs or scooters) between late 2018 and June 2021.

This can be explained, in my opinion, with the understanding that the airlines treat mobility devices like luggage. If equipment is damaged, you are sent to the lost and/or damaged baggage department to complete a form, as if it was a missing suitcase, rather than a vital piece of medical equipment. 

It seems there is no more concern over a wheelchair than a lost bag.

It feels like Air Canada has chosen to prioritize the comfort and safety of horses over the comfort and safety of disabled passengers. ​​​​​​

For the disabled traveller, this means arriving at their destination without the one piece of equipment that keeps them mobile, comfortable, safe and independent. 

For the non-disabled traveller, it is the equivalent of having the airline break both of your legs during your flight.

Unfortunately, I’ve learned this from experience. 

During my travels, I’ve had my wheelchair damaged countless times by various airlines.

This includes one incident on an Air Canada flight, where my wheelchair was damaged beyond repair. My wheelchair was replaced, but the entire process took more than four months to resolve. This incident had a serious impact on my physical and mental health. 

The federal minister of disability inclusion responded to a recent incident where an airline damaged a $30,000 power wheelchair beyond repair.

“We have to figure out a way to end this once and for all,” Carla Qualtrough said. “I promise you, we’re on it.”

For years, the disability community has been calling for airlines worldwide to provide a safer system for transporting mobility equipment — particularly wheelchairs and scooters.

A safer system, we believe, would require that mobility devices be placed in a safety container, before being put into the hold of an aircraft. 

Then, with some fanfare, Air Canada recently announced that you can now safely transport your horse by air.

It feels like Air Canada has chosen to prioritize the comfort and safety of horses over the comfort and safety of disabled passengers. 

At best, this decision seems misguided. At its worst, it is ableist and dismissive of the disability community. 

I call on the airline industry and all levels of government to treat disabled travellers with the dignity and respect that has been shown to horses.


This column is part of  CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.