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Virtuoso stranded in airport demands apology from Air Canada

Violinist Itzhak Perlman was stranded at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on March 31, 2014.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

An employee's failure this week to help the violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman after he landed at Toronto's Pearson Airport is a reminder that access to travel for disabled people is inconsistent and even getting worse, advocates say.

Mr. Perlman said that, on Monday, an Air Canada employee who was supposed to assist him instead abandoned him with his luggage, crutches and violin in the zone between the arrival gates and passport control. The renowned Israeli-American musician wants a personal apology from the carrier's chief executive.

"I think a good first step would be an outreach from the CEO or president of Air Canada. I was informed that there has been a previous history of insensitivities by Air Canada," said David Lai of IMG Artists in New York, Mr. Perlman's agent.

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The incident brought back memories for Barry McMahon, a disabled Ottawa resident who filed a complaint against Air Canada in 2005 because he did not get wheelchair assistance while in transit at Pearson. A quasi-judicial tribunal, the Canadian Transportation Agency, ordered Air Canada to take remedial steps.

"I certainly could empathize with the frustration that [Mr. Perlman] was going through. … Of any place on the planet, Toronto should be a shining example," Mr. McMahon said.

Rights groups in Canada have been fighting for years to get the federal government to improve assistance for disabled people. Hard-won changes are being eroded by the lack of updated regulations, said Pat Danforth, who chairs the transportation committee of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.

Under federal law, individuals can complain if there is a barrier to their mobility. However, without better regulations, the CTA has to rely on voluntary codes of conduct.

In 2000, Via Rail bought 139 rail cars that were not accessible to disabled passengers, then refused comply with a CTA decision that the company had contravened its code of conduct. It took a seven-year judicial battle, all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, to reverse Via Rail's decision.

"Independent access to the same comfort, dignity, safety and security as those without physical limitations is a fundamental human right for all persons who use wheelchairs," the highest court ruled.

Despite such judicial gains, services remain unpredictable and "the gaps are getting bigger again," Ms. Danforth said.

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"I've had great experiences with Air Canada and I've had good experiences going through Toronto airport, but certainly, these isolated incidents show that there is room for improvement," Mr. McMahon said.

According to WestJet, assistance to disabled travellers at Pearson is handled by a third-party sub-contractor, Servisair.

Servisair officials did not respond to interview requests. Air Canada would not say if the incident with Mr. Perlman involved an airline staffer or a third-party contractor.

"This incident is disconcerting and does not reflect the policies Air Canada has in place to take care of customers with disabilities," spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur said in an e-mail. "We are looking into this situation and we have been in contact with the customer to discuss this matter and apologize."

Ms. Arthur said Air Canada has "extensive procedures" for customers needing special assistance. "Each month, we take care of more than 25,000 wheelchair requests at Toronto Pearson alone."

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