Un­tapped po­ten­tial

Apps and web­sites help air pas­sen­gers get com­pen­sa­tion for flight prob­lems

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - BUSINESS - BY ROSS MAROWITS

Air­line pas­sen­gers who use so­cial me­dia to vent their rage at be­ing stuck on a tar­mac for hours or wait­ing days for their lug­gage to ar­rive may get some apolo­getic words from the com­pany, but are un­likely to re­coup any money for their efforts.

That’s be­cause the per­cent­age of Cana­di­ans who ac­tu­ally ap­ply to air­lines for com­pen­sa­tion is in the sin­gle dig­its, some­thing that Ja­cob Char­bon­neau hopes to change.

The for­mer air­line em­ployee is co-founder and CEO of Flight Claim, a Que­bec-based com­pany that has helped pas­sen­gers re­claim $1.5 mil­lion in com­pen­sa­tion for flight de­lays, can­cel­la­tion, lost bag­gage and over­book­ing since start­ing less than two years ago.

Char­bon­neau saw the ser­vice’s po­ten­tial af­ter help­ing a col­league fight an air­line over a $900 claim.

“I didn’t find that it was fair that peo­ple weren’t able to get the com­pen­sa­tion only be­cause they’re not aware of their rights or they’re not aware of how to get that com­pen­sa­tion,” he said in an in­ter­view.

There is plenty of un­tapped po­ten­tial be­cause less than five per cent of Cana­dian pas­sen­gers bother to file claims for com­pen­sa­tion, Char­bon­neau said.

With Flight Claim, pas­sen­gers com­plete an on­line form and leave the com­pany to han­dle the rest.

There’s no fee, but the com­pany gets paid 25 per cent of the award if it is suc­cess­ful.

A sim­i­lar busi­ness model is used by a myr­iad of com­peti­tors that op­er­ate abroad un­der names such as We­claim, Green Claim, Re­fund.me, EU­claim and Flightright.

While air­lines are get­ting bet­ter at man­ag­ing their fleet, a five per cent an­nual growth of pas­sen­gers is strain­ing air­ports, air­lines and air traf­fic con­trollers, re­sult­ing in more de­lays, can­cel­la­tions, and the odds of get­ting bumped, ac­cord­ing to Hen­rik Zillmer, founder of AirHelp, which of­fers a ser­vice sim­i­lar to Flight Claim. It also takes a 25 per cent com­mis­sion.

Only 15 per cent of global pas­sen­gers ob­tain com­pen­sa­tion, leav­ing 85 per cent high and dry, he said.

“It’s very much a se­cret that the air­lines have kept from you that we are now try­ing to tell all air pas­sen­gers,” he said from New York City.

The com­pany says it has helped more than 20,000 Cana­di­ans who stum­bled upon the ser­vice even though it only for­mally launched in Canada last month.

Cus­tomers can al­low AirHelp to link with their email to au­to­mat­i­cally mon­i­tor if they are en­ti­tled to any com­pen­sa­tion on flights they have taken.

AirHelp some­times steps in to sue air­lines that re­ject re­fund ap­pli­ca­tions knowing most pas­sen­gers will give up and not at­tempt to force the sit­u­a­tion by fil­ing suit within the three-year ex­piry pe­riod, Zillmer said.

Ga­bor Lukacs, founder of ad­vo­cacy group Air Pas­sen­ger Rights Canada, says he sup­ports efforts to help pas­sen­gers get the com­pen­sa­tion they de­serve, but he’s not con­fi­dent that for­profit com­pa­nies will bear the ex­pense of help­ing the more chal­leng­ing cases that would re­quire lit­i­ga­tion.

“Not all com­pa­nies are the same in the sense that many of them are just look­ing for the low hang­ing fruit,” said Lukacs, a math­e­ma­ti­cian who has gone to court and chal­lenged reg­u­la­tor rul­ings in the defence of pas­sen­gers.

While on­line tools or apps can be use­ful, Lukacs warns pas­sen­gers not to rely solely on their opin­ion.

His group’s web­site of­fers free ad­vice and has tem­plates of let­ters that should be sent to air­lines in the case of bag­gage claims. Its 7,000 mem­bers also of­fer ad­vice based on their own ex­pe­ri­ences through its Face­book ac­count.

“We work as a com­mu­nity. It’s a non-profit net­work where we try to give peo­ple some guid­ance on what they’re next steps could be,” he said.

Lukacs is also un­con­vinced that pas­sen­gers will get more money from Ottawa’s proposed air pas­sen­ger bill of rights be­cause the yet-to-be-passed bill will re­lieve air­lines from be­ing ob­li­gated to pay com­pen­sa­tion for main­te­nance issues that cause de­lays.

“The Lib­eral gov­ern­ment’s bill is go­ing to dou­ble the amount of money pas­sen­gers are not go­ing to get.”

Ex­perts sug­gest that pas­sen­gers who think they might be el­i­gi­ble for com­pen­sa­tion keep doc­u­men­ta­tion on ex­penses paid, ask for the rea­son for the flight de­lay or can­cel­la­tion in writ­ing, record in­ter­ac­tions with air­line staff, not ac­cept food vouch­ers in lieu of claims and not trust ad­vice from air­line ground staff who are likely not fa­mil­iar with the law.

“In Europe, things are much eas­ier,” Lukacs said.

“But in Canada be­cause you may be fac­ing a high level of bur­den of proof, you should re­ally doc­u­ment things ... as metic­u­lously as you can.”

CP PHOTO

Ja­cob Char­bon­neau of Flight Claim is seen in his of­fice re­cently in Brossard, Que.

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