Medical visit runs into turbulence

Penticton woman misses appointment with specialist after airline refuses to allow her on flight with oxygen canister

Linda Bignell with an oxygen canister similar to the one she had with her when she was denied boarding on a WestJet flight to Vancouver.

Linda Bignell with an oxygen canister similar to the one she had with her when she was denied boarding on a WestJet flight to Vancouver.

A Penticton woman denied boarding onto a WestJet flight feels she deserves a personal apology from the company.

Linda Bignell, who suffers from pulmonary hypertension, had been waiting months to see a specialist at Vancouver General Hospital. She and a companion took a shuttle from Penticton to the Kelowna airport to catch a flight when her trip took a different turn.

“I was told my oxygen cylinder was too long. There are thousands of people that have these tanks, but for some reason they decided to pick on me,” said Bignell, breaking down into tears. “I was going for medical testing to see this doctor that I had been waiting to see for a long time.”

The 63-year-old must remain on oxygen 24 hours a day, and when she got to the desk at WestJet they told her that her canister was too big and didn’t fall into the policy they have for oxygen tanks. All she wanted was an apology, but instead felt that the finger of fault was pointed at her.

“They made me feel like I was so stupid. I’m not a stupid person, my mind is still working. I just needed help to get to this doctor’s appointment, and as far as WestJet is concerned it is my fault,” said Bignell.

WestJet manger of public relations Robert Palmer said the company employees followed the airline’s policy to ensure the safety of all their passengers when they wouldn’t allow Bignell on with her oxygen canister. WestJet accepts two different kinds of oxygen tanks — the D or M6 types. Bignell’s tank is a similar size and weight to the WestJet-approved canisters, but was not labelled the D or M6 type.

“Those are the kinds we have done risk assessments on and Transport Canada has guided us on as well. We have decided those ones are safe,” said Palmer.

“The reality of it is, oxygen tanks are tanks of compressed oxygen. If something were to happen to the regulator at the top of the tank, for example it became dislodged or popped off, the oxygen tank would take off in the cabin like a rocket. You can imagine in an aircraft that is not a good thing.”

Palmer maintained that Bignell arrived with an oxygen canister different than the two they approve, and employees did the right thing in not allowing her to board.

“We were faced with a very difficult decision but a very clear decision. Our people did the right thing. I am sure it was very disappointing to them because of course we want this lady to be able to fly with us, but we have policies when it comes to safety,” said Palmer.


WestJet employees called Vital Aire to see if they could get her a tank that falls within their policy and change Bignell’s flight to a later time, but that meant she would have missed her appointment. Palmer said they gave Bignell and her guest a meal voucher, paid for their shuttle back to Penticton and a full refund. Palmer suggests people with oxygen needs should visit the WestJet website for more information or contact guest services at 1-800-581-9499 no later than 48-hours prior to your flight.

“It is very, very unfortunate and we feel badly, and certainly if she is able to obtain the right kind of tank we would be more than happy to fly her as we do with people who have oxygen everyday, but they have to have the right tank,” said Palmer. “We feel very badly about this but this is a safety issue and it is not possible to allow something onboard the aircraft that we are not comfortable with.”

Bignell has since been able to reschedule her missed medical appointment for January and said she most likely will be seeking an alternative for getting there either by Greyhound or leaving from the Penticton airport with Air Canada, who supplies the compressed oxygen to those who need it for a fee.