When airline passengers fight back

The public is fed up with the barbarity of modern air travel, resorting to complaints, legal actions and all-out brawls. Have we seen the end of friendly skies?
Upset businesswoman checking in at airport ticket counter. (Jupiterimages)
Upset businesswoman checking in at airport ticket counter. (Jupiterimages)
Travellers and airline staff alike seem ready for confrontation (Jupiterimages)

Machael Shaik was flying back to Canada from Christmas holidays with his family in Manchester when an airline staff from Icelandair, whom he was flying with, barred him from checking in to his flight. Shaik didn’t have his eTA (Electronic Travel Authorization), she claimed, which—as a U.K. citizen with a Canadian work permit—he needed to enter Canada.

As far as Shaik knew, he had everything he needed to re-enter the country where he worked, studied and volunteered in his community. He asked the airline staff to scan his passport where he was sure all the information they needed could be found on an electronic chip embedded inside its pages.

“I handed the woman my documents and she threw them back at me,” he says. Shaik ended up missing his flight, a week of work and about $1,000 in wages, and had to rebook his flight at a higher price. Icelandair never offered so much as an apology to Shaik who, turns out, had the appropriate documents all along. The airline didn’t respond to Maclean’s request to comment on the incident.

“This is what I’ve been up to all year,” he says, his travel documents and print-outs of emails between his legal counsel and Icelandair sprawled in front of him at a Toronto cafe. Since the incident in January, Shaik has been seeking compensation, about $2,500, from the airline. So far, it’s rebuffed him. Icelandair officials haven’t returned his emails since March 22, and have yet to cop to any error. The Canadian Transport Agency, the regulatory body tasked with investigating air passenger complaints, has been no help either.

“It’s the way they handled it that bothers me the most. They were so rude,” says Shaik, who’s vowed to never travel with Icelandair again. “I felt like they were criminalizing me.”

Barring passengers from flying is an increasingly common practice among airlines. The most egregious recent example, of course, is when security personnel on a United Airlines flights battered and dragged David Dao off an overbooked flight after he refused to give up his seat. The incident left Dao, a 69-year-old doctor traveling from Chicago back home to Elizabethtown, Ky., with a broken nose and concussion. We might be looking back on it as an extreme example of passenger mistreatment, were it not for the handful of other equally outrageous incidents that have occurred in recent weeks. Another explosive display of passenger ire involved a near-riot at a Spirit Airlines ticket counter in the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida earlier this month. The brawl, which lead to several arrests, was incited by flight delays and cancellations resulting from a labour dispute that interfered with hundreds of travelers’ plans.

Older passengers might remember a time when flying was civilized: travellers dressed in their Sunday best, baggage checked at no extra cost, ample leg room, free seat-selection, hot meals served on china and with cutlery and a glass of wine to boot. But anyone who’s been on a plane lately, or for that matter an airline’s Twitter feed, can attest that flying isn’t the treat it used to be. In-flight pleasantries have long-disappeared; in their place are frustrated passengers and airline staff primed for an argument, confrontation, or in extreme cases scuffles and all-out physical assault. Delays, along with overbooked aircraft and overall bad customer service—just a few features of the hostile endeavor air travel has become—seem to be passengers’ main triggers. But they are all traits of the ever popular budget carrier, a service that conflicted customers both demand and decry: as airlines look to slash rates for customers while maintaining their already ultra slim profit margins, customer service has fallen by the wayside.



One airline analyst put it this way: It’s like ordering fast-food and expecting to get a triple-A steak. Since the airline industry was deregulated—in the late 1970s in the U.S. and the ’80s in Canada—the business has become a fiercely competitive race to appease consumers’ demands for cheap flights. In doing so, air travel has gone from an upper-class luxury to an accessible means of travel, or “a necessary evil,” as the analyst, whose company policy doesn’t allow him to speak on the record, described it. The problem, he explains, is that passengers are used to a certain level of service, and while they’re no longer willing to pay a premium to fly, their expectations for quality have not lowered to match the price they’re comfortable paying.

Spirit Airlines, based in Miramar, Fla., is the most illustrative case in point. In 2015, the low-cost carrier received the highest number of per-passenger complaints of any other airline in America, and nearly double the number issued against Denver-based Frontier Airlines, the next-most irksome U.S. carrier. Yet the following year, Spirit’s flight volume was up 13 per cent, and its revenue grew more than 11 per cent. When poor customer service fails to hurt the bottom line, as these numbers suggest, there’s little incentive to improve.

According Gabor Lukacs, though, the real problem isn’t that customers are fickle, but that airlines are able to violate regulations with abandon. “The biggest issue is the airlines don’t comply with the law,” says Lukacs, a mathematician by trade who volunteers as an air passenger rights advocate in Canada (Lukacs has launched 29 cases before the Canadian Transportation Agency, which regulates the airline industry, and has won 27 of them). “The laws are there, but airlines just ignore their own policies and say, ‘if you don’t like it, tough—sue us,’” he says. “How many people have the time and energy to sue an airline? Not many.”

Lukacs himself is the obvious exception, of course, and as a result he’s become a sort of go-to man for the wronged. His Facebook page, Air Passenger Rights Canada, is bombarded everyday with posts from aggrieved passengers. Many are seeking advice on how to pursue compensation for damaged luggage, or for services they never received. Some need guidance on filing a complaint against an airline or an unhinged passenger. Others are just there to vent.

That was Josh Gilmore’s motivation after yet another bad flying experience this January. During a visit home to Calgary for the holidays, he had lost his wallet and had to book his return flight to Fredericton with his friend’s credit card. Shortly after that, he came down with the flu and rebooked his ticket for a few days later, paying the change fee on his friend’s card again. He was issued a confirmation and itinerary from Air Canada, but when he arrived at the airport the day of his flight, his ticket wouldn’t print. He waited an hour for staff at the check-in desk to help him, then another 45 minutes at ticketing. Finally, staff explained his ticket was flagged by Air Canada’s internal fraud department because the passenger’s name on the ticket didn’t match the name on the credit card that paid for it.

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Air Canada still accepted the payment they deemed fraudulent, however, and made Gilmore purchase another ticket to fly that day. When all was said and done, Gilmore says, he was out about $1,800 for a one-way ticket from Calgary to Fredericton. He was compensated after four months of “fighting Air Canada tooth and nail”—thanks to Lukacs’ help. “If it wasn’t for Gabor, I would have been swallowed up by this system like everyone else is,” says Gilmore. “I think that’s the approach these airlines take. They just stonewall people to the point that it’s so cumbersome to chase these claims down and they have no other choice than to give up.”

Maclean’s spoke with another passenger (she didn’t want to be named because of her brother’s connection to the airline industry) who, similar to Gilmore, had her ticket with Air Canada cancelled twice, and in her case, refunded, without being notified. The most recent incident caused her to miss her original flight from Toronto to Vancouver for a swim meet to qualify for the World University Games. She had enrolled in a fifth year of university to train for the meet, and based on her racing times, stood a chance of making the Canadian team. Instead, she says, the stress from her journey and not having time to adjust to the time change cost her a spot on the team. “My whole year was based around this swim meet and it ended up being a waste,” she says.

“I feel like [airlines] just don’t care and they think they can get away with treating people like that,” she says. “I don’t think they realize how much it impacts a person.” An Air Canada spokesperson, responding by email, confirmed “there are no particular issues around people buying tickets for other passengers” with a valid credit card. He wouldn’t comment on specific circumstances, but added, “we understand it is unsettling when [security] measures inadvertently disrupt someone’s travel and if an error is made on our part we work to rectify it as quickly as possible (bearing in mind verification can take time in some instances).”

While Air Canada guarantees $800 for passengers who have been denied boarding, like many travelers, the university swimmer isn’t prepared to fight the airline for the compensation. Shaik, on the other hand, is. “Everyone keeps telling me to drop this,” he says of his battle with Icelandair. “But it’s not even about the money at this point. They can’t keep doing this to people.” Shaik isn’t naive to think he’ll come out in the black after pursuing his cause. Taking an airline to court in Canada often requires more money than what a customer is seeking in damages, so most people don’t bother. “If out of 100 passengers only one goes to court, and 99 suck it up, then the airline can short-change the public,” says Lukacs. “They will continue to disobey the rules, because it’s more economic than to follow them in many cases.”

The recent experience of 15-year-old Derrin Espinola is a stunning example of this. Espinola was traveling with Air Canada from Denver to Thunder Bay early this month when a delayed flight caused him to miss his connection at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. The airline rebooked his flight for the next day, but said they couldn’t help him beyond that. The minor spent the night in the airport after Air Canada staff refused to help him find accommodations or even something to eat. The airline’s policy clearly states: “Youths travelling alone (ages 12 to 17)…will be taken care of by our agents. We will also arrange for accommodations, meals and transportation if needed.” A spokesperson for the airline said in statement that it was “truly sorry” for what happened to Espinola, adding that staff had made “all efforts” to accommodate passengers affected by the runway construction that disrupted Espinola’s travel.

A screen grab from traveller-filmed footage of the near-riot in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport (Youtube)
A screen grab from traveller-filmed footage of the near-riot in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport (Youtube)

At this point, Espinola can file a complaint with the CTA, which is meant to back up aggrieved air passengers when their rights are violated. But that doesn’t always happen. Statistics from the CTA’s latest annual report show that air travel complaints against Canadian carriers doubled between 2012 and 2016. But during that same period, the number of enforcement actions taken against airlines dropped from 129 to just 64. The agency’s close ties with the airline industry also raises questions about it’s ability to be impartial regarding companies it’s meant to hold accountable. The CTA manager of enforcement, Simona Sasova, for instance, is on first-name basis with airline executives she’s meant to regulate, while CTA vice-chair, Sam Barone, is the former president and CEO of both the Canadian Business Aviation Association and the Air Transport Association of Canada, as well as a former lobbyist for the airline industry.

The in-flight fury cuts both ways, of course. One flight attendant using the pseudonym Brad Bernoulli recently wrote an op-ed for British news outlet Independent about the horrors of the job. “It’s almost as if people lose their sense of decency once they smell jet fuel,” he writes. “From full-scale meltdowns when I’ve run out of their meal choice (come on people, it’s chicken or pasta) to asking for a glass of water with a ‘single, medium-sized ice cube’ or the passenger who asked me to chill her Coke with ice, but then strain them out after it was cold enough. From not being able to figure out how to open the lavatory door (push where it says push!) to watching porn during flights, uncontrollable children running amok in economy, the list goes on and on…

“Believe me,” he adds, “I’d love to bring back the golden era of flying, where I could serve surf-and-turf, free drinks and world-class wine to everyone onboard. But until my company asks the general public to pay $1,000 for an economy ticket on the 90-minute flight from Washington, D.C. to Chicago, that won’t be happening.”

Amidst mounting hostility between airlines and passengers, Canada’s transportation minister, Marc Garneau, tabled a bill this week meant to protect air passengers’ rights. The legislation says passengers with legitimate tickets cannot be barred from boarding, or bumped from, a flight against their will. “When Canadians buy an airline ticket, they expect the airline to keep its part of the deal,” Garneau wrote in a recent letter to all airlines operating in Canada.

But Lukacs isn’t convinced the bill will have material impact on passenger rights. For starters, he says, there’s nothing in the document that states passengers can’t be bumped involuntarily, which was the enticing detail of Garneau’s announcement on May 16. Second, the bill doesn’t outline any specifics on penalties for violating new proposed rules—that’s something the government is trusting the CTA to conceive. “But the problem is the [CTA],” Lukacs says of the regulator. “They already have the power to enforce rules. They could be issuing fines now, but they’re not doing that. I don’t see how this is going to be significantly different.”

Instead, Lukacs sees the bill as tactic to temper passengers’ outrage. “It creates the public impression that we’ve done something,” he says. “I think this is a way to appease the public; to ensure that this issue doesn’t come up for a while.”