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Airline passengers need to stand up for themselves: advocate

Jan. 10, 2014, Ottawa - So there you are, one of hundreds of weather-weary airline passengers stuck in a post-storm airport. The kids are bouncing off the walls, your spouse is on the brink of hysteria, and you’re contemplating the vicissitudes of a nervous breakdown. As for the airline, well, it’s as if the employees think you’re one of the walking dead. What do you do?


January 10, 2014
By The Ottawa Citizen

Gabor Lukacs, a Halifax scholar who has become something
of an irritant to airlines as a passengers’ rights advocate, has some
advice: First, don’t count on the airline’s looking kindly on your
complaints. Second, don’t get hostile. (More on this point momentarily.)
Third, keep a detailed account your dealings within airline staff.
(More of this, too.)

 

In Lukacs’s view, passengers flying in Canada
really don’t have much in the way of substantive rights that airlines
are obliged to respect. “The general attitude is that when a passenger
has a complaint, the airline’s first reaction is to stonewall the
passenger,” Lukacs said Thursday. “They tend either to not respond to a
complaint or say they aren’t responsible for it.”

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Canada’s
airlines are subject to federal regulation. The Canada Transport Agency,
a quasi-judicial agency, is supposed to adjudicate passenger complaints
against the airlines. The agency is pretty good at espousing the
principle of passengers’ rights, Lukacs says, but it is less so when it
comes to concrete action on behalf of passengers.

 

Lukacs
attributes this attitude to the federal government itself, which, in his
view, “doesn’t exactly believe that passengers have any rights.” He
cites as evidence the Conservatives having “blocked” two private
members’ bills from NDP MPs to establish an airline passenger bill of
rights.

 

He contrasts this lackadaisical attitude in Canada with
that of other jurisdictions, such as the United States and, in
particular, the European Union.

 

In the EU, passengers’ rights are
prominently displayed in airports. Moreover, in Europe, airlines that
don’t follow the rules regarding passengers’ rights are subject to a
criminal investigation. In the U.S., the Department of Transport can
issue fines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in some case
millions of dollars, when airlines ignore passenger complaints in some
large-scale fashion.

 

Lukacs says he’s not aware of any case where
the CTA has imposed a significant fine on a Canadian airline for
disregarding passenger complaints.

 

“When a passenger comes with a
complaint, the approach of the agency, recently at least, has been that
the airline is presumed to be right and the passenger is at fault unless
proven to the contrary.”

 

Lukacs has come by this judgment the
hard way. In recent years he’s filed about two dozen cases with the CTA.
And he’s often aided airline passengers who’ve taken their complaints
to the CTA in an effort to obtain compensation for lost luggage or
delayed and cancelled flights. As a result of one of his complaints, the
CTA modified its regulations to increase the amount of compensation
airlines have to pay to to $800 from $200, depending on the nature of
the delay.

 

Given all of this it is no surprise
the Lukacs is not enamoured with how airlines treat passengers.
Generally speaking, he says, the airlines are more concerned with the
bottom line than customer relations, advertisements to the contrary.

 

“It
boils down to a simple profit question: Is it more profitable to treat
all passengers fairly? Or is it more profitable to tell a complaining
passenger to get lost and only pay compensation when that passenger
takes them to court?”

 

When airlines refuse to give passengers
access to baggage they’ve just checked in, even when their flight is
delayed or cancelled because of weather, it’s often because the airline
just doesn’t want to go through the logistical and security headache of
having to off-load baggage that’s already in the system, he said.

 

“A
storm is a good excuse for why they don’t fly, but they cannot just
blame a storm that happened a week ago on why a week later passengers
are still stranded or don’t have their baggage.”

 

What can you do?
International flights are governed by the Montreal Convention, a binding
treaty that obliges airline to accept liabilities in relation to
passengers and their baggage, Lukacs said.

 

However, on domestic flights,
the convention is not binding and is regarded, at best, as a guideline
for airlines.

 

But in Lukacs’s view, the real issue is the attitude
of too many airlines toward their passengers.

 

He is particularly
contemptuous of how airlines often use the rationale of security to
avoid dealing with complaining passengers. He’s heard of passengers who
complained too much for the airline’s liking being dragged away by
police.

 

“The airlines too often deal with passengers who assert
their rights through use of the police,” he said, noting he was once
threatened with legal repercussions until he played his recorded
conversation to a judge.

 

Hence, Lukacs’s advice: Stay polite and
respectful, but also stay firm. Furthermore, record your exchanges with
airline staff to demonstrate your politeness, whether to police or a
court.

“I strongly recommend recording your conversations with
airlines, whether on the phone or in person,” he said. “They may not
like it, but it is perfectly legal to record your own conversations.

And
you don’t need the other party’s permission to do that. Record those
interactions, because if you do get arrested you can sue the airline for
false arrest.”

 

That, finally, is the ultimate recourse available to passengers, said Lukacs.

 

“If
you have 1,000 or 2,000 passengers suing or hiring a lawyer for a class
action, then the airlines will have to take the matter seriously.”