When the Hamilton family arrived at the Santiago de Chile Airport on Monday for the first leg of their trip before hopping on a cruise, they were left in the lurch after Air Canada misplaced Jim Hamilton’s custom-built wheelchair.
“When that wheelchair wasn’t there, I went into panic mode because that’s his legs, that’s his safety, he has to have it,” said Kathie Hamilton.
The Hamiltons, now in Viña del Mar, Chile, remain perplexed by the airline’s error, which has partially foiled their travel plans that had been set in stone for months.
“This trip was hugely important to us. I thought I dotted every I, crossed every box, and worried about all kinds of things, but I never once worried that the wheelchair that I left at the gate, at the very door of the airplane, would not show up,” said Kathie in a Zoom call, with Jim by her side.
Jim suffered a stroke two years ago, leaving the right side of his body paralyzed. He also suffers from aphasia, which allows him to understand everything but cannot verbally communicate.
When he suffered the stroke, Kathie admits she was unsure if the duo could ever travel again but wanted to make it a reality. So, they hired a travel agent who specialized in working with travellers with accessibility requirements and realized that a cruise would be one of the best ways to get around.
“He has to have a wheelchair, and his wheelchair, it’s custom-made, and he’s six-two, 250 lbs., you can’t stick him in some transport chair,” Kathie said. “It’s just not safe.”
In a statement emailed to Global News, Air Canada said they “regrettably” didn’t load the wheelchair on the flight to Chile.
“We fully appreciate the importance of mobility devices to their customers and have processes in place to ensure they travel safely with their owners, and we are reviewing why that did not occur in this case. We are following up with the customer directly to apologize and address their concerns and, as part of this process, we did immediately offer the customer a $300 goodwill gesture,” wrote an Air Canada spokesperson.
But, on the ground, it was a different story for the Hamiltons.
When they landed and approached the Air Canada complaint department at the airport in Chile, Kathie said they were rebuked, with staff saying other people were missing luggage, too. That commentary was considered offensive by Kathie, who said the airline clearly didn’t understand the value of having proper accessibility equipment for people who are disabled.
“This isn’t a suitcase, these are his legs. You’ve taken away his legs,” she said.
In Jim’s custom-made wheelchair, the arms lift, there’s special padding to limit body sores, and it’s a specialized height to help him get into chairs, cars and beds. Instead, according to Kathie, he was given a loaner chair whose foothold fell apart and posed a significant risk of injury.
“We’ve managed it, but it hasn’t been safe,” she said.
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Eventually, staff helped the Hamiltons move to a hotel in Chile, and they were given a contact number for a third-party wheelchair company. Kathie contacted her daughter Wendy Elliot who went public with the story on Twitter.
Elliot said Air Canada didn’t move on getting them their wheelchair until they contacted the media with their story.
Eliott thinks the company’s handling of the entire situation shows that they do not fully understand the risk they’re causing someone who is disabled.
“What happens if he hurts himself or she hurts herself? What happens if Jim falls and she’s trying to transfer him because he’s in a chair that’s not appropriate for him?” said Elliott.
With her parents being offered a “measly” $300 in a country where they don’t speak the language and are essentially being told to procure the wheelchair themselves, Elliott said she was stunned by Air Canada’s response.
“I feel angry. Being so far away, you feel so helpless, the companies are so big, and you think, ‘What am I going to be able to do?’” she said.
Air Canada has told the Hamiltons they plan to send the wheelchair to Santiago, Chile, on Tuesday evening, but the family is already in another city more than an hour away. And with the Hamiltons set to board a cruise, they’re worried they won’t get the wheelchair in time.
The entire experience has left the family reconsidering if they’d fly with the airline again.
“They’re very not accessible, so I would definitely steer away from Air Canada,” said Kathie.
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