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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Time for an airline bill of rights

A story about the good, the bad and the ugly of airline travel.
A story about the good, the bad and the ugly of airline travel. - 123RF Stock Photo

This is a personal story about the good, the bad and the ugly of airline travel. It’s also about why the federal government is going to have to give passengers tools, like an effective airline bill of rights, to stop airlines abusing their powers.

It’s a story about a series of mistakes, employees who truly wanted to help passengers, and an airline that, at the corporate level, clearly doesn’t give a damn.

Russell Wangersky.
Russell Wangersky.

I was supposed to fly from Ottawa on Air Canada on Friday and connect with a flight to St. John’s in Halifax. The flight had problems from the start: first, the tug arm pushing the airplane from the gate broke off, delaying pushback. Then, after takeoff, the aircraft’s wheels failed to retract. (The plane had been undergoing engine repair work, and a pin had been put in place to hold the wheels locked in place. It was not removed after the work, so the wheels would not come up. That necessitated a return to Ottawa, so that the pin could be removed.)

Then, the aircraft developed an electrical fault in an electrical sensor; that meant, in the captain’s words, rebooting the aircraft, for an even longer delay.

Needless to say, a missed connection.

At that point, things were just annoying. On the good side, the flight crew was professional and cheerful, and upon landing, the airline had vouchers for hotel stays and breakfast, and boarding passes on new flights.

That sounds like a series of unfortunate events, and an airline trying to help.

But then came profit.

The flight had problems from the start: first, the tug arm pushing the airplane from the gate broke off, delaying pushback. Then, after takeoff, the aircraft’s wheels failed to retract.

When I got off the plane, there were 11 passengers who needed rebooking to St. John’s. There were 10 seats available on the next St. John’s flight, so the customer service staff said there would be no problem with catching the flight. (Especially so, because one passenger, an Armed Forces member with a limited number of days in town before a six-month tour in Europe, opted to buy a WestJet ticket to get out earlier and have more family time.)

All good, right?

Well, no.

Because the 10 seats weren’t 10 seats at all.

Saturday morning, even though the plane was completely full of paying passengers and displaced passengers, Air Canada had seats for sale (I have screen shots of the website with tickets available for sale) and continued to sell them, pushing the passengers it had already inconvenienced onto still later flights. Ten seats turned into just three and, well, I didn’t enjoy my Saturday spent at Halifax’s airport.

Just throwing this out there — selling a car I don’t have to sell is known as fraud.

Customer service agents said bluntly that Air Canada overbooks its flights, and when those flights are overbooked, who gets the seats is decided by priority: first, the passengers who already had tickets for a flight, then the ticket holders with more airline status or more expensive tickets who are waiting for seats.

So, essentially, someone buying an expensive last-minute ticket can bump passengers that Air Canada has already failed to deliver services to — because extra cash is apparently more important that an airline’s responsibility to living up to its contract with existing passengers. (Gate crew and customer service reps take the brunt: at head office, I guarantee no one feels a twinge.)

I understand it’s a business. I understand it’s about profits. I understand that this is just a small taste of what the airlines dish out to some unfortunate passengers.

But passengers need some protection.

In Europe, there are cash penalties for airlines that don’t provide prompt services to the customers they inconvenience.

It’s clearly time for that here. Cash is apparently the only language airlines like Air Canada speak.

 

Russell Wangersky is SaltWire Network’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at rwanger@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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