Bring on the passenger bill of rights for plane travel
The Canadian government recently announced it will introduce an airline passenger bill of rights in the spring. Although Transport Minister Marc Garneau has not released any specifics, the proposed legislation comes as welcome news.
The announcement comes as videos showing the violent removal of Dr. David Dao, 69, from a United Airlines flight at Chicago’s O’Hare airport on April 9 have sparked widespread condemnation and calls for a boycott. Dao was dragged from his seat by three security guards after refusing to “voluntarily” give up his seat on a flight that had been overbooked. The assault left him bleeding and in need of medical treatment.
The images are shocking. I’ve done my share of travelling over the years, and I’ve never witnessed anything like this. As far as I know, this is not standard practice for airlines that overbook their flights in the U.S. or anywhere else. Nor should it ever be.
To be clear, it’s legal for airlines to overbook flights and bump passengers off. (If I’m honest, this came as a surprise to me. Note to self: always read the fine print.) While the government of Canada does have a website detailing your rights as an air passenger, Canada lacks legislation spelling out whether passengers can be forcibly removed from a flight because of overbooking. Nor do we have any set regulations indicating compensation airlines must pay when they overbook, or when a flight is delayed or cancelled.
Travelling used to be half the fun of getting there. That is no longer the case. For many people, flying has become an experience that must be endured, a trial for even the most adept travellers. Once you check in at the airport, you have absolutely no control over the process. When things go awry — a cancelled or delayed flight, a missed connection, lost baggage or families not seated together, for example — often all you can do is rely on the professionalism of harried front-line staff faced with the ballooning demands of grumpy, tired travellers.
Of course, airlines also know we’re willing to put up with a whole lot in exchange for a cheap flight.
Example: My family recently flew on a discount airline from Montreal to Costa Rica for spring break. After a short stopover in Toronto, we boarded and settled in. The poor guys behind us were sitting on soggy, sticky seats covered in apple juice from the previous passengers, and the only food available for purchase during the seven-hour flight to San José ended up being packages of Swedish berries and lukewarm noodles-in-a-cup soup. Irritating? Yes. End of the world? No.
Part of travelling is expecting the unexpected and learning to roll with it.
But if airlines are permitted to overbook and bump passengers off flights for which they have paid and presented themselves, Canada should introduce a passenger bill of rights that will, at the very least, spell out fair compensation — a hotel room, food and drink, financial compensation or prompt rescheduling onto another flight — and rules regarding forcible removal. The government of Canada is right to propose legislation that will hold airlines to account.