News / Toronto

Airport workers flagged Pearson wheelchair concerns in July, letter reveals

A letter to GTAA president Howard Eng outlines understaffing, inadequate training and other concerns relating to passenger assistance.

Passengers are seen at the per-clearance security checkpoint at Pearson Airport in this July 2016 file photo.

Staff / Torstar News Service Order this photo

Passengers are seen at the per-clearance security checkpoint at Pearson Airport in this July 2016 file photo.

Passenger assistance workers at Canada’s busiest airport warned its chief executive this summer that understaffing, poor pay and inadequate training was jeopardizing the help given to passengers in wheelchairs, Torstar has learned.

News of the workers’ concerns comes after revelations that the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) is now the subject of multiple lawsuits alleging that poor service at Pearson led to severe accidents affecting vulnerable and often elderly travellers—including the death of an 82-year-old woman.

In a letter dated July 18 and obtained by the Star, workers told GTAA president Howard Eng that there were not enough passenger assistance agents and that existing agents were “overworked, abused and underpaid.”

“To make matters worse, most of the agents are not properly trained and are hired on a part-time basis only. This results in very poor customer service,” the letter says.

Responding to questions from the Star, GTAA spokesperson Erin Kennedy said in an emailed statement that Canadian travel regulations make airlines responsible for assisting passengers with disabilities as they travel through an airport. This includes check-in, moving to and from the aircraft and while collecting luggage, she said.

The GTAA, however, is responsible for ensuring that the airport is “accessible” and also licenses the businesses allowed to work inside Pearson, Kennedy said.

“We recognize that there’s more that can be done,” she continued. “That’s why we’re working with the Canadian Transportation Agency to think about better ways to serve these passengers and would welcome input from organizations for people with disabilities about our operations at Toronto Pearson.”

The GTAA did not address Torstar's questions about the workers' letter to Eng.

Howard Eng, the embattled CEO of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.

Torstar News Service

Howard Eng, the embattled CEO of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.

The CBC published an investigation Thursday that revealed eight lawsuits against the GTAA, various airlines and companies providing passenger assistance services at Pearson, all of which related to the alleged neglect of passengers that needed or asked for wheelchairs to move through the airport. Torstar was able to independently confirm two of those lawsuits, including a $1.2-million claim against the GTAA, Air Transat, five flight attendants, a ground transportation company operating at Pearson, the Municipality of Peel, local paramedics and a subsidiary of Air Transat that offered passenger assistance services. The suit relates to the death of 82-year-old Antonia Becchetti after a fall at the airport in October 2011.

Her sons, John and Mauro, filed the lawsuit last year. The brothers allege their mother asked for a wheelchair before boarding a flight from Italy to Toronto. But she wasn’t given one when she landed at Pearson’s Terminal 3, and began to walk to the immigration area on her own, the statement of claim says. She fell backwards on an escalator, struck her head and died the next day, the family’s lawyer, Joe Falconeri, told Torstar on Thursday.

The statement of defence denies all allegations of negligence and claims Becchetti “failed to proceed with due care and attention,” did not hold the escalator handrails and continued to walk without waiting for assistance.

The GTAA also filed a cross-claim lawsuit against the other defendants in the case, alleging they are responsible if any damages and losses occurred.

None of the allegations has been tested in court.

A second lawsuit against the GTAA and WestJet, which was filed in 2013, alleges Manitoba resident Isabell Mackie asked for a wheelchair to board a flight at Pearson in June 2012. The lawsuit alleges she was never given one, and she tripped as she walked down the inclined causeway to the plane, stumbling forward and incurring “serious and permanent injuries.”

According to their statements of defence, the GTAA and WestJet argue there was no negligence and Mackie is at fault for her injuries.

None of the allegations has been tested in court.

Mackie’s lawyer, Sandra Zisckind, told the Star Thursday that the litigation for her client’s suit and others involving similar issues are being held up by arguments about who is responsible for wheelchair services at the airport.

“What does it say about us as a society when individuals fail to properly accommodate the most vulnerable?” Zisckind asked. “It is my hope that lawsuits such as these will place pressure on these organizations to become more accommodating for those requiring extra assistance.”

Michael Schmidt, a lawyer representing the GTAA in both lawsuits, did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

As previously highlighted by Torstar, the contract to provide passenger assistance services at Pearson has changed hands four times since 2004. Critics say the practice, known as contract flipping, creates widespread job insecurity at the airport and sometimes negatively impacts workers’ wages and benefit entitlements.

This spring, hundreds of wheelchair workers were forced to re-apply for their own jobs after a company called Toronto Ground Airport Services lost its exclusive contract with the airport after less than a year.

The letter to Eng, understood to be from a “significant number” of non-unionized passenger assistance agents, said contract flipping had become a “vicious cycle” at Pearson and was undercutting customer service.

“These workers truly need protection from contract flipping,” said Sean Smith of the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council. “You cannot have a billion dollar airport run off the backs of precarious, minimum wage, part-time workers. It’s that simple.”