Wheelchair passenger says he had to drag himself off Air Canada plane

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For most people, arriving for a trip to Las Vegas brings excitement, mixed with a little trepidation.

But for Rodney Hodgins, who traveled in August, his flight into the city was an experience so traumatic, he says, that it ruined the rest of his trip.

Hodgins, a wheelchair user, says that he had to drag himself along the aisle, helped by his wife, when mobility assistance staff from the airport didn’t turn up to assist him. He says that Air Canada staff instructed him to disembark on foot – despite the fact that he can’t walk – so that they could turn the plane around.

Hodgins – who has spastic cerebral palsy – can support his own weight but cannot move his legs.

Hodgins and his wife Deanna were flying from Prince George in British Columbia to Vancouver, and then Vancouver to Vegas in late August. It was a special occasion – their first wedding anniversary.

The couple had married in 2022 in Vegas, and this was to be a chance to enjoy Sin City without wedding planning or stress. Hodgins had booked six days in a suite at the fancy Delano Las Vegas hotel, as a surprise for Deanna. “He’d planned the whole trip – he was heartbroken when it went sideways,” she says.

‘We thought he was kidding’

The narrow aisles on commercial passenger aircraft generally cannot accommodate wheelchairs onboard – although an innovative new idea aims to resolve the problem – so users are usually asked to leave their chair at the door of the plane, where it is loaded into the hold. The passenger then transfers into their seat with an aisle chair – a narrow, notoriously uncomfortable implement – by airport assistance staff. Upon landing, the reverse happens.

Because of his condition, Hodgins generally needs two or three members of mobility assistance staff to help him in the aisle chair – and the couple say they informed Air Canada of his requirements when they booked the assistance alongside the flights, eight months ahead of travel.

But while the first flight went according to plan, when the second one landed, Hodgins says that nobody turned up to assist him off the plane for 20 minutes.

“When we landed in Las Vegas we were happy. It was Vegas, it’s warm, it’s beautiful, we were ecstatic,” says Deanna Hodgins.

But then reality hit.

The couple say that about 20 minutes after landing, while they were in their Row 12 seats, watching the power chair being removed from the hold and brought up to the jetbridge, a male flight attendant walked over and asked them to walk to the front of the plane. The reason? They needed to prepare for the next flight, he said.

“We thought he was kidding at first, because everyone was in such a good mood,” says Deanna Hodgins.

“He was the flight attendant – he was there the whole flight – he saw my husband be brought on the flight with an aisle chair. So we laughed, thinking it was absurd.”

But the flight attendant wasn’t joking.

“He insisted that the plane had to turnaround, and had another flight, and we needed to get off,” she says.

“We started panicking. We were like, what do you mean we have to get off? We can’t – his wheelchair’s out in the jetway. We didn’t know how we were going to do that.”

But, they say, the flight attendant continued to insist.

As they were pointing out that Hodgins couldn’t walk, they say, one person arrived from mobility assistance to help with the aisle chair – the only person during the incident to treat them kindly, they say.

Passenger needed more assistance

Rodney Hodgins said he wants to use the incident to raise awareness of what people with disabilities have to cope with while flying. - Deanna Hodgins
Rodney Hodgins said he wants to use the incident to raise awareness of what people with disabilities have to cope with while flying. - Deanna Hodgins

Hodgins needs more than one person to maneuver him into the chair – but he says this staffer told him that nobody else was coming. “I’ve radioed twice, there’s no one here,” he told them.

The couple decided to wait, assuming that someone else would eventually turn up. Meanwhile the cleaning crew worked their way down the plane and the cabin crew appeared to be discussing what to do with the pilots and staff on the jetway.

Finally, as the cleaning team reached their row, the Hodgins still felt pressure to move, says Deanna Hodgins. “They were like, ‘we have to turn this plane around.’ That’s when Rodney finally just said, ‘We’re going to have to get off this plane somehow – I’m just going to have to drag myself.”

“There was no way I could get to the front of the plane because of course I can’t walk,” Hodgins tells CNN. “I was pretty ticked off, but I told my wife to help me up on my feet. I can’t really move my legs so my wife had to go on the floor and help me [move them].” Hodgins supported himself by holding onto seats on either side of the aisle as his wife moved his legs. With her on the floor and him dragging himself with his arms, they managed to go the whole 12 rows.

But when they reached the galley area ahead of the front row, there was nothing more for him to hold onto – and still no sign of any assistance staff. “I had to get my wife in front of me and hold me up with her shoulders,” he says.

They called for the staffer with the aisle chair to bring it – he’d been sitting further back in the plane as they struggled to the front – and managed to maneuver Rodney into it, with the help of Deanna, to get off the plane and into his power chair, which had been waiting for them at the aircraft door the whole time.

The incident had a knock-on effect on their trip to Vegas, they say, as Hodgins had sustained physical damage. “He couldn’t even get in the shower for three days,” says Deanna.

Seeking resolution and change

In an email from the airline to the couple in response to the Hodgins’ account of how they were treated, seen by CNN, Air Canada says that, “Based on the information we currently have available, we have to regrettably admit that Air Canada was in violation of the disability regulations.”

Air Canada said in a statement released to CNN that they had tried emailing and then called the couple to apologize offered compensation to Hodgins for his “upsetting travel experience.”

“The level of care that should have been provided at the destination airport was not. We use the services of a third-party wheelchair assistance specialist in Las Vegas to provide safe transport on and off aircraft. During our investigation into what happened, we determined the flight attendants followed procedures, including offering assistance that was declined. Following our investigation into how this serious service lapse occurred, we will be evaluating other mobility assistance service partners in Las Vegas.”

The airline declined to offer specifics in response to CNN’s questions about the Hodgins’ allegations.

Enforcement officers of the Canadian Transportation Agency are investigating the incident, the agency told CNN.

Canada’s Minister of Transport, Pablo Rodriguez, has called on Air Canada to meet this week with him and Canada’s Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Persons with Disabilities.

“I was horrified to learn about another incident on an Air Canada flight. All Canadians must be treated with dignity and respect. Full stop,” Rodriguez said in a statement, adding that the airline “must present a plan to address this.”

Deanna Hodgins says that a female flight attendant offered to carry their bags – but is adamant that no other assistance was offered. “They didn’t offer assistance to move him in any way, or assist us in moving him, at any time at all.”

And while Air Canada appears to be blaming mobility assistance staff, the Hodgins lay the blame firmly at the feet of the airline.

“It wasn’t the transport crew that told us to get off the plane,” says Deanna Hodgins.

Looking for ‘dignified treatment’

The airline has sent them $2,000 in flight credits, but the couple were hoping for something rather cheaper: time.

“Rodney was hoping that someone high up from Air Canada would just have a human to human decent conversation about how it made him feel, just to make him feel human again,” say Deanna.

“Just to say, ‘Hey, this is how you failed. And this can never happen again. And this is kind of the policies that we’d like to see you put in place, because you can say sorry all you want, but until you do something, it doesn’t mean much.’

Hodgins now wants to use the incident to raise awareness of what people with disabilities – roughly one in six of the global population – have to cope with while flying.

He also wants to campaign for more effective penalties for airlines and airports that fail their special assistance passengers, suggesting that if passengers haven’t been helped off the plane within 15 minutes of reaching the gate, airlines should be fined.

Rodney Hodgins celebrated his 50th birthday this month – but the couple, who try to travel as much as possible, canceled their trip. “We were so scared something would go wrong on the flight,” says Deanna.

“We didn’t want special treatment. We just wanted to fly, and we just wanted dignified treatment. No one’s asking for special treatment – just simple assistance.”

CNN’s Paula Newton contributed reporting.

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