Air passenger advocate takes fight to new heights

“If you want one national religion which kind of transcends any kind of faith it’s, you know, maple syrup, hockey, and hate Air Canada.”

HALIFAX – A Nova Scotia man who has been a thorn in the side of Canada’s airline industry is taking his crusade to the next level.

After years of bringing complaints against the airlines before the Canadian Transportation Agency, Gabor Lukacs is challenging the operations of the agency itself.

The Halifax man has launched a constitutional challenge against the regulator, claiming its failure to disclose evidence received while reviewing passenger complaints is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ open court principle.

It’s the latest in a series of battles with the airlines that are increasingly taking over his life.

In recent years, Lukacs has been responsible for increasing the compensation Canadians receive when they are bumped by overbooking. Air Canada, Porter and Air Transat are among the airlines whose policies have changed because of Lukacs’ complaints.

But the 32-year-old admits he’s surprised to find his life has taken this direction. Born in Hungary, Lukacs had already earned a PhD in mathematics by the time he came to Canada in his early 20s.

That’s when he began a Canadian academic career that included teaching at Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University and the University of Manitoba. It’s also when his frustrations began with Canadian airlines.

“I didn’t realize that people so badly hate Air Canada,” he said.

“If you want one national religion which kind of transcends any kind of faith it’s, you know, maple syrup, hockey, and hate Air Canada.”

Since 2009, the Canadian Transportation Agency has made 37 decisions linked to Lukacs. He said he was successful in 24 of them.

The Transportation Agency didn’t immediately respond to an email about Lukacs’ challenges, Air Canada declined to comment.

Lukacs’s advocacy for passengers rights is less about his personal experiences, he said, and more about seeing an area where he feels he can make a positive change for Canada.

“It really looks like it takes somebody who wasn’t even born in this country to say ‘OK this is wrong,”’ he said.

Lukacs has become someone to whom Canadians reach out with their air travel frustrations. He said he gets emails every week from passengers looking for advice.

On Tuesday, Lukacs will be at a Halifax court making a constitutional challenge that was sparked when he was looking into a case where passengers were bumped from a connecting flight. The passengers said they made it to the gate on time, while the airline said they were late and had given away their seats.

Lukacs said he tried to get documents from the Canadian Transportation Agency to better understand the complaint, but what he received was heavily censored.

“What I’ve been seeing is over the last years is a complete degradation of the agency’s work and the development of this … smokescreen kind of secrecy around how things are being done,” he said.

Lukacs argues that because Canadian Transportation Agency functions like a court, it should make material in its proceedings publicly available. Otherwise, he said, there is no way of ensuring passengers’ complaints are fairly addressed with proper evidence.

His court appearance on Tuesday is one of two he will make this week. In preparation, the self-represented mathematician spends hours with friends quizzing him and trying to dismantle the argument he will make in a courtroom before professionals with law degrees.

While he’s happy to hold airlines accountable for now, Lukacs said he would love to step back a bit and give more time to math.

“Air passenger rights is important but … the laws can be changed at a whim. When you prove a theorem in mathematics, it remains true forever unless you’re proof is wrong.”

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