Speech from Canadian Transportation Agency Chair and CEO, Scott Streiner, at the International Civil Aviation Organization - North American, Central American & Caribbean Regional Office meeting, in Ottawa on August 1, 2018

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No Person Left Behind: Global Action to Advance the Accessibility of Air Travel

Thank you for inviting me to speak today – and a big welcome to colleagues who've travelled here from across North America, Central America, and the Caribbean.  You've definitely come to Ottawa at the right time of year.  Much as Canadians are happy to host guests any month, we don't tend to get quite the same level of enthusiasm for meetings here in February!

Though we don't like to think too much about it in August, winter is something Canada is known for.  Less well-known is the fact that Canada was a pioneer in air travel, thanks largely to Alexander Graham Bell.

Bell is famous as the inventor of the telephone.  So if anyone in the room is glancing at your cell now rather than listening to this speech, I partly have him to thank!

Devising the first phone would have been more than enough to secure Bell a place in the history books, but that was far from his only accomplishment.  Bell was one of those broad thinkers and experimenters who, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, achieved breakthroughs in a wide range of areas.

One of those areas was aviation.  Throughout the 1890s—years before the Wright brothers' success at Kitty Hawk in December 1903—Bell had turned his genius to experimenting with kite-based designs for an aircraft that could be powered and steered.  In 1907, he set up a Canadian-American research enterprise that designed and built the Silver Dart, which flew in early 1909 in Hammondsport, N.Y. and from the frozen surface of Baddeck Bay, Nova Scotia.  The latter was the first human flight anywhere in the British Empire.

The Wright Flyer, the Silver Dart, and similar innovations turned a thousands-year-old fantasy into a reality.  Within just a few decades of those audacious and dangerous experiments, people were crossing over oceans in long metal tubes without a second thought.  And today, for many around the world, getting on a plane is almost as routine an event as making a call on one of those cell phones I mentioned a moment ago. 

Barriers to air travel

Routine for many – but not for everyone. 

Sometimes, the barrier to safe, reliable air travel relates to comparative levels of economic development.  That's why ICAO launched its No Country Left Behind initiative in 2014.

Sometimes, the barrier relates to a disability. 

Bell's mother and wife were both deaf.  This was one of the reasons he grew interested in voice transmission, and spent a great deal of time and energy on efforts to improve educational opportunities for deaf people.  But Bell also thought deafness should be eradicated and preferred that those with hearing loss learn to speak rather than use sign language.  So he was sensitive to the difficulties deaf people faced, but ultimately demanded that they, rather than society, adapt.

Today, we take a different, better approach.  Hopefully, we've retained Bell's awareness of the challenges persons with disabilities confront.  But we recognize that it's our shared responsibility to remove barriers.  We view equal access to facilities and services, including air travel, as a fundamental human right.  As the stated in the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – the CRPD, which has been ratified by 177 countries – accessible transportation is necessary "to enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life."

That recognition is a crucial starting point, and major strides have been made towards more accessible air travel.  But persons with disabilities still encounter many barriers when they want to go somewhere by plane. 

Travellers who are deaf may not hear announcements regarding boarding, gate changes, turbulence, diversions, and evacuations.

Passengers who rely on wheelchairs may have difficulties making a connection in a large airport, boarding the plane, and getting out in an emergency.  Sometimes, they even find themselves watching from their window as their expensive, customized wheelchair is accidentally dropped to the ground during the loading process.

Travellers with vision loss may not be able to use check-in apps, may not know about flight delays and cancellations that are posted on airport screens, and may not receive a proper safety briefing once on board.

People who have lived through war may struggle psychologically through a flight if they don't receive seating matched to their needs.

Each of these passengers is an individual who has the same interest as anyone else in using air travel to visit family and friends, see new places, seek medical treatment, or do business.  And each is a revenue-generating customer whom the airline wants to serve well and bring back for repeat business. 

Together, governments, industry, and disability rights groups can help make sure barriers to air travel are removed.

The promise – and limits – of domestic action

Some of the jurisdictions represented in this room already have domestic rules regarding accessible air travel. 

In Canada, those rules are made and administered by the organization I head, the Canadian Transportation Agency.  The CTA is Canada's longest-standing independent tribunal and regulator.  We have a number of aviation-related responsibilities, from licencing air carriers to issuing charter permits, handling consumer complaints from passengers to, of course, working to ensure the accessibility of air transportation. 

Accessibility is a key priority for the CTA – and for Ministers and officials across the Government of Canada.  In fact, the Government recently tabled a major national accessibility law in Parliament. 

Over the last two years, the CTA has been working on a comprehensive review and modernization of accessible transportation rules and guidelines.  We've received 200 submissions from industry, community organizations, experts, and individual travellers.  We've looked at best practices in other countries.  And we're now in the process of drafting Accessible Transportation Regulations that will integrate and update the provisions of two existing regulations and six voluntary codes.

The new regulations will address everything from guiding assistance through airports to website accessibility, from closed captioning in new in-flight entertainment systems to accessibility-related training for airline personnel.

We're proud of the progress we've made on these new regulations, and confident they'll go a long way towards clarifying compliance requirements and improving the air travel experience of persons with disabilities. 

Such national rules on accessible air travel are important.  They're an exercise of sovereignty that helps ensure the fundamental rights of persons with disabilities are respected.  They make it clear to carriers serving the country – whether domestic or foreign – what minimum accessibility standards they must follow. 

But setting accessibility rules at the national level isn't enough.  The aviation sector, by its nature, crosses borders.  It is the ultimate global industry.  For passengers with disabilities, different accessibility regimes in different jurisdictions can result in confusing and frustrating trips by air.  For carriers, this fragmentation increases compliance complexity and costs, and may result in market disadvantages if a carrier's home jurisdiction sets the accessibility bar higher than do its competitors' home jurisdictions. 

So, even as we work to ensure clear, reasonable, and effective accessibility rules in our own countries, we need to think about how we achieve greater consistency across jurisdictions – just as we've done, and continue to do, for safety.

The achievements – and gaps – of current international standards

Of course, we're not starting from scratch.  The standards and recommended practices contained in Annex 9 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation already require that Member States take the necessary measures to ensure that persons with disabilities have equivalent access to air services, and they provide guidance on how to achieve this objective through policies, services, equipment, and facilities.

These standards and recommended practices have made a difference.  But there's still a lot of ground to be covered – and a variety of trends and forces are making it more urgent that we do so.  In many parts of the world, the population is aging and the proportion of persons with disabilities – which has now almost reached 20 per cent globally – is growing.  Indeed, many of us, our loved ones, and our friends are likely to have some sort of disability at some point, if we don't have one now.  At the same time, industry is making increasing use of cutting-edge technology for everything from maximizing load factors to providing services without the need for human contact – technology that sometimes improves accessibility, and sometimes creates new barriers.  And on the 10th anniversary of the coming-into-force of the CRPD, there are rising expectations around the globe that concrete steps will be taken to ensure persons with disabilities have equal access to transportation services.  As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said of the CRPD, "signing and ratifying the Convention is not enough. Implementation is essential."

We can take some satisfaction from progress already made towards accessible air travel – but the evidence shows that we need to do more.  We need to build accessibility considerations into the way air transportation facilities, equipment, and services are planned and delivered.  And the time to act is now.  

One key step would be to work together to advance a resolution on accessible air travel for consideration at the fall 2019 ICAO General Assembly.  This resolution could note the links between accessible air travel on the one hand, and sustainability, safety, and the CRPD on the other.  It could identify agreed high-level principles for accessible air travel and commit to the development of a set of more specific norms.  It could direct ICAO committees and working groups to incorporate accessibility considerations into their work.  And it could include a commitment from all Member States to take concrete measures to ensure accessible air travel in their jurisdictions, monitor progress, and report on results,


An international accessible air travel agenda may seem ambitious, especially at a time when there are already multiple initiatives under way.  But in 2018, it's an agenda that makes sense.  It makes sense because we have a shared commitment to ensuring that persons with disabilities can live lives of dignity and independence.  It makes sense because accessible air travel is good for all passengers, not just those with disabilities.  It makes sense because greater accessibility can be a key contributor to the safety and reliability of air travel.  It makes sense because persons with disabilities are a growing demographic and, to some degree, a market waiting to be tapped by industry.  And it makes sense because carriers will benefit from the clarity and consistency that a common set of global accessible air travel principles and practices will foster.

We should not hesitate to be bold in pursuit of worthwhile goals.  Like Alexander Graham Bell doggedly pursuing his many ideas and inventions, we should reach high while keeping our feet on the ground. 

Together, we can forge principles and practices that help ensure that we live up to our values, make air travel available to everyone from great grandmothers in wheelchairs to children with severe allergies, and ensure a level playing field for the world's airlines.   

I thank you for your attention, and would welcome your ideas on how we can make progress in this very important area.

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