Airline passengers deserve stronger rights
If there’s any justice, Dr. David Dao, the man beaten and dragged off a United Airlines plane for refusing to give up his seat, has changed the industry forever. Dao suffered a concussion, lost two teeth and had numerous facial injuries. Adding insult to injury, United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, initially called Dao “disruptive” and “belligerent,” and praised his crew for following company policies.
Muñoz later apologized, but the damage was done. As news of Dao’s ordeal went viral, the Internet lit up with outrage as passengers related their own horror stories with other airlines.
There was, for instance, the experience last month of a Prince Edward Island family who booked seats on an Air Canada flight to Costa Rica. But when they arrived at the airport, they were told the flight was overbooked, and their 10year-old son couldn’t get on.
When the boy’s mother volunteered to give up her seat, she was told there was still no guarantee her son would be admitted. The seat might go to a more frequent flyer.
Called to account, Air Canada apologized and offered compensation. But why does it take embarrassing publicity to force reparations? Why not put a stop to these scandals before they take place?
In Dao’s case, four airline employees had to travel, so four paying passengers lost their seats.
Airlines also overbook flights in the expectation that some passengers will not show up. An empty seat was paid for, so it might not seem to be a problem — but airlines allow the no-shows to get on later flights. To make room for them, others might be bumped.
Beyond that, Air Canada offers guaranteed reservations to its most frequent flyers. These preferred customers can book seats on full flights up to six hours before departure. To make that possible, the airline bumps someone else.
These scenarios can pose problems for infrequent flyers on inexpensive fares — the people most likely to be involuntarily bumped.
In the past few days, travellers have learned that buying a ticket for airline travel is not as clear-cut as they might have imagined. That ticket will get you to your destination at some time, on some day, with no other promises. And the money you paid is non-refundable.
This has the potential to hurt the credibility of all airlines. The airlines need to be open and honest about the level of compensation they will give when they choose to pull a seat from the customer who paid for it.
If the airlines are not going to fix this on their own, the answer is a bill of rights that guarantees passengers fair treatment. Transport Minister Marc Garneau promised to introduce a scheme of this sort.
We are less than optimistic he will get it right.
More important, it’s understood the new legislation will not outlaw bumping. What it might do is increase the compensation customers can be offered in such cases.
But this is only acceptable if people voluntarily give up their seats. Otherwise, it still leaves airlines holding the hammer.
Whatever steps are taken must go to the heart of the matter. An airline ticket should be a contract to fly someone on a given day, at a given time, to a given place. Passengers are entitled to make follow-on arrangements, from connecting flights to hotel reservations, in the expectation this commitment will be met. When it is not, the harm done can far exceed whatever compensation might be offered.
We hope the Dao disgrace will force airlines to end bumping, if not out of respect for their customers, then for reasons of self-preservation. But if they won’t, Parliament should do it for them.