You know it’s bad when even the White House is shocked. The cellphone video images of a United Airlines passenger being dragged off an oversold plane in Chicago two weeks ago caused widespread outrage. President Donald Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer said the videos were “troubling.”
The passenger was assaulted, knocked unconscious and bloodied after he refused to give up his seat. It was only after the airline’s stock plummeted, a boycott was launched and a lawsuit began that a full apology finally came.
The news for airlines got worse more recently when the story broke about a 10-year-old P.E.I. boy who was bumped from a family vacation flight. The Charlottetown family of four was heading for a March break holiday in Costa Rica when the youngster was denied a seat because the flight was oversold. It was almost another Home Alone movie nightmare.
A parent had to drive with the youngster to Moncton and then to Halifax to finally make a connection to rejoin the other parent and child. It was only after the family returned home and The Guardian contacted Air Canada that an apology was issued and compensation offered.
The airline industry has gotten away with overselling flights and bumping passengers for years without accountability. A passenger against a major airline was an unfair fight.
And the federal government has long been complicit in this egregious behaviour.
The Chicago assault, the Charlottetown caper and public outrage finally resulted in action. Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced last week that legislation protecting airline passengers is coming. The long overdue bill of rights for passengers should be in place by 2018.
Passenger rights advocates are well advised to give the bill close scrutiny because Ottawa has failed for years to hold airlines to account.
Minister Garneau says the legislation is a clear recognition that when you buy a ticket, you have certain rights. It’s about time that Transport Canada supports passengers ahead of airlines.
Since 2009, airlines subscribed to a voluntary code of conduct on passengers’ rights – developed by Ottawa. It was hardly worth the paper it was written on. Airlines continued to overbook flights and Ottawa said that was OK.
They overbook because airlines follow a mathematical algorithm that some passengers won’t show up for a flight and those empty seats can be sold to improve profits. When all passengers show up or an airline needs to transport a flight crew, problems ensue.
There is no need for stupid decisions like those in Chicago or Charlottetown. Times are good for airlines. Profits are up and record numbers of people are flying. Yet complaints seem to increase. There is no need to overbook. Period.
These sorts of incidents fuel the perception that airlines simply don’t care about their passengers.
Seats are getting smaller when many Canadians are getting bigger – in all the wrong places. We deserve a break. And a little comfort. And that seat we paid for.