CALGARY—On July 22, newlyweds Chelsea Williams and Sean Fitzpatrick arrived at the airport, excited to kick off their honeymoon in Europe with a flight to Venice.
The Edmonton couple checked into their flight online at around 4 p.m. the day before. They arrived at the airport the next morning, went through security and made it to their gate, only to be told they were no longer on the plane, Williamson said in an email.
Sometime after they checked in, their aircraft was changed to a smaller plane and the couple was told by a WestJet agent that they had been moved onto a new flight that would leave five hours later. The agent told them they should have been notified of the change by Air Miles, which they used to book the flight.
Williamson said she received no notification from Air Miles and when she contacted them, they told her that they had not been notified of the change by WestJet. According to an Air Miles spokesperson, after a passenger has checked in it is the airline’s responsibility to notify them of any schedule changes.
Williamson reached out to WestJet customer service via Twitter DM, where she was told the flight change was due to overselling of tickets by Delta, WestJet’s partner airline.
She said WestJet called it a “schedule change,” and offered her and Fitzpatrick $125 WestJet dollars each. But something didn’t feel right, so Williamson checked the WestJet website and found that schedule changes within the three-day period before a flight are considered delays or cancellations.
Since the plane the couple was supposed to be on was not delayed or cancelled, Williamson felt this was a case of denied boarding, which would merit much more than $125 WestJet dollars per person. Under the new regulations that came into effect just a week before their flight, compensation for denied boarding is between $900 and $2,400, depending on the hours delayed.
“If they are attempting to do this with me, I can only imagine how many people they are also doing this to,” Williamson said in the email.
She complained to the Canadian Transportation Agency. On Aug. 16, the CTA announced it is launching a federal investigation into the incident.
In an email, WestJet media relations said the company cannot comment on the ongoing investigation. They said they were committed to their guests “even when things do not go according to plan” and continued to work with the CTA to implement the new regulations.
But airline passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs said spats like this over the definition of denied boarding could be the new norm.
In Feb. 2019, the Air Passenger Rights organization, headed by Lukacs, sent a 52-page report to the Canadian Transportation Agency outlining its concerns and recommendations regarding the new air passenger protection regulations, some of which came into effect July 15, 2019. The rest of the regulations come into force at the end of the year.
The advocacy group said it had two major concerns with the regulations. The first is the length of time passengers can be kept on the tarmac. This was extended from 90 minutes to more than three hours, said Lukacs. The second is the term “denied boarding,” a rule Lukacs says has been made stricter to the point where airlines can weasel their way out of compensation in pretty much any scenario.
That’s what Lukacs says is happening right now to Williamson, a situation he calls a “disgrace.”
“It took us one week to prove that we were right about this. I’m very sad, because it was so predictable,” said Lukacs.
Lukacs said that during the public and stakeholder engagement regarding the regulations, all he and his organization asked was that the current standards be upheld.
Instead, he said the new regulations leave much more room for airlines to take advantage of customers and deny them the compensation he feels they deserve.
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“It’s not like we were asking for the sky.”
Air Canada media relations directed Star Calgary to a webpage outlining the airline’s tariff policies concerning denied boarding and damaged or lost luggage under the new regulations.
So, what changed on July 15 for airline passengers, and what is yet to come?
According to an overview of the new regulations posted to the Canadian Transportation Agency’s website, the regulations apply to all flights to, from and within Canada. On July 15, regulations concerning general communication, flight delays and cancellations, denial of boarding, accessibility, tarmac delays, lost or damaged baggage and transportation of musical instruments came into effect.
Airlines are required to provide passengers with proper treatment during tarmac delays, including food, water and the ability to contact others outside the airplane. The maximum tarmac delay before an aircraft must allow passengers to disembark is three hours, with an additional 45 minutes if it is likely the plane will depart during that time.
The new regulations also set a concise definition of denied boarding: when a passenger has a valid ticket for a flight, but cannot board because there are more passengers than seats.
Airlines are required to provide compensation to passengers denied boarding at the time the denial occurs, and must rebook them free of charge.
On Dec. 15, the rest of the regulations will come into effect. These include compensation for delays and cancellations, standards of treatment for disrupted flights and seating of children.
Delays or cancellations within the airline’s control that are unrelated to safety could result in compensation between $400 and $1,000 for large airlines, or $125 and $500 for small airlines.
On the Air Passenger Rights Facebook page, passengers on flights around the world post daily asking Lukacs and others for advice regarding baggage claims, compensation and more. Several passengers have posted about situations similar to Williamson’s: where passengers say they have been offered a small amount of compensation, usually a discount on an upcoming flight or a voucher. Lukacs said they’re owed much more.
“The passengers in those cases are entitled to compensation,” he said. “The airlines are just trying to brush them off and mislead them that they are only owed a small amount.”