Air­line pas­sen­gers de­serve stronger rights

The Daily Courier - - OPINION -

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.

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