Friday, November 21, 2008

Canada's Court Rules Obese People Must Be Given Extra Seat

Canada's two largest airlines must give disabled and morbidly obese passengers an extra free seat on domestic flights, beginning in January, after the Supreme Court of Canada refused Thursday to consider the carriers' appeal to a federal order.

The Supreme Court, by convention, gave no reason for declining to intervene in the case.

The decision ended a six-year battle by disabled travellers to secure two seats for the price of one if they need inflight attendants. Obese people can also qualify if they are too big to fit in a single seat.

Air Canada and WestJet failed in their pitch for the Supreme Court to consider a January 2008 decision from the Canadian Transportation Agency, which gave them one year to implement new policies in the absence of being able to show that a "one-person, one-fare" structure would cause undue hardship.

"This means I'm equal now," said Joanne Neubauer, a Victoria woman whose severe rheumatoid arthritis confines her to a wheelchair. "I'm just so excited and happy that justice prevailed."

The agency said the airlines must develop procedures to assess eligibility. The free seats need not be provided to obese people who are merely uncomfortable in their seats or are not disabled by their size, said the ruling.

The airlines also do not have to make allowances for disabled people who prefer to travel with a companion for personal reasons or those who require care on the ground but not in the air.

"The agency is leaving it up to Air Canada and WestJet to develop their own screening policies," said CTA spokesman Marc Comeau.

A potential sticking point is how to determine when obesity is a disability. The agency has recommended that the airlines adopt a policy used by Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, which gives a free seat to people who are too big to lower their armrest.

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