Non-binary passengers criticize airlines for not offering third-gender option when booking flights


Social media is full of posts this month from Canadian airlines celebrating Pride. There is a WestJet TikTok video showing an airplane flying over a rainbow, sunwing and Air Transat tweets promoting LGBTQ holiday hotspots and, on Instagram, Flair airlines wishes everyone “Happy Pride”.

But non-binary Canadians with travel plans feel left out of these Pride celebrations.

Indeed, airlines still do not offer passengers a gender-neutral X option when booking flights online. Instead, they must choose either male or female. Airlines are promising change, but some transgender advocates, including Gemma Hickey of St. John’s, Newfoundland, say they’re tired of the wait.

“It is very hypocritical for these airlines to promote inclusivity and celebrate pride as they marginalize a group of us within this community who for a long time have existed on the fringes,” Hickey said.

As a non-binary person, Hickey uses the pronoun they and does not identify exclusively as male or female.

Gemma Hickey from St. John’s, NL received a Canadian passport with an X gender designation in 2018. They are still waiting for many airlines to adopt the gender category. (Submitted by Gemma Hickey)

In 2017, the federal government introduced a third X gender designation for passports. hickey received one the following year and immediately began lobbying Canada’s major airlines to adopt Option X as well.

“They had time to make the changes,” Hickey said. “I feel like I’m not part of society. I’m not represented.”

That’s how Iz Lloyd felt when he flew with WestJet last month from Calgary to Halifax. Lloyd, who is non-binary, said they were forced to identify as male or female to book their flight and check in online.

Lloyd, who has a gender X designation in his passport, said he was told at the airport that people who identify as non-binary must appear in person to check in.

“If men had to check in at the door and they couldn’t check in online, people would lose their minds…but the trans community should put up with it.”

Iz Lloyd of Halifax, who is non-binary, has asked WestJet to remove its social media posts about Pride a month after Lloyd was forced to choose a male or female designation to board a flight. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

The following week, Lloyd asked WestJet to remove its Pride social media posts. However, the messages remain online.

“Corporations are really bad with the rainbow wash of, you know, ‘We’re so inclusive, we’re so good, look at us, give us money, like, we’re the best'” , said Lloyd. “But if you’re not really doing the work, you can’t say that.”

According to 2021 census data, 0.33% of Canadians, or about one in 300 people, identify as transgender or non-binary. About 41,355 of the more than 30 million people who responded to the census identified themselves as non-binary.

Why do airlines ask for your gender?

Transport Canada told CBC News that airlines must identify the gender of passengers to security reasons and estimate their weight to determine if an aircraft can fly safely.

However, Transport Canada has stated that the government accepts gender-neutral designations and recommends that airlines assign a standard male weight to passengers using such a designation.

Porter Airlines added option X in 2018, United in 2019 and American Airlines in 2020.

“There’s no excuse,” Hickey said of airlines that haven’t yet followed suit. “We have the documentation.”

WestJet and Flair Airlines told CBC News they are working to change their reservation systems and should implement a gender-neutral option by the end of the year. Air Transat said it has similar plans.

Air Transat and WestJet both said the required changes were complex and attributed the delay to the pandemic.

“While we encountered several unexpected obstacles…we are committed to rectifying these issues to stay true to our goals of creating an inclusive environment for all,” WestJet said in a statement.

Sunwing also said it is updating its reservation system to include an X option and, in the meantime, passengers can call for the designation or change it online once their flight is booked.

The airline did not respond to a question about how it educates passengers about these options.

What about Air Canada?

Air Canada said in November 2019 it introduced an “undisclosed” gender-neutral option for booking flights online.

This was news for Hickey who recently booked an Air Canada flight over the phone. After CBC News informed Hickey, they called the airline again and changed their gender designation to “undisclosed.”

Hickey was happy to make the switch but said they would prefer the “X” option.

“I’m happy to disclose my gender, and so ‘undisclosed’ to me is… not the right thing.”

WATCH | WestJet has denounced the fact that it does not offer any gender-neutral options:

Transgender advocates slam WestJet for not allowing gender ‘X’

Transgender advocates across Canada are calling on WestJet not to allow people to choose “X” as a gender marker, instead of male or female, when booking flights.

Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said the airline plans to introduce Option X soon and aims to add gender-neutral options to check-in next month.

“Adding these options is a complex task and it was only really made possible by the relatively recent installation of a brand new reservation system,” Fitzpatrick wrote in an email.

Hickey hopes that next year all airline gender options will align with their pride marketing.

“It remains to be seen whether these changes will be made. I look forward to the day when they do, and I will certainly continue to keep my feet on fire until the day comes.”

Lloyd said he would like to see the federal government step in to make sure airlines get into gender category X.

“If it’s a legal marker, it should be tracked,” they said. “The government should put ground rules in place.”

Transport Canada said it does not regulate airline reservation and check-in systems.