BUSINESS
08/13/2019 13:14 EDT | Updated 08/13/2019 15:59 EDT

WestJet Bumping Incident Raises Fears New Air Passenger Rules Are Toothless

“The new rules are taking away protection that passengers previously enjoyed."

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A view of WestJet planes at Calgary International Airport, Mon. Sept. 10, 2018.

Chelsea Williamson isn’t happy with Canada’s new air passenger bill of rights

When WestJet bumped her and her husband from a flight out of Edmonton last month after swapping in a smaller airplane, the move effectively cost the newlywed couple a day of sightseeing in Venice.

“You go all that way to a place you may not ever be able to return to ― and you are unable to see what you went all that way for because you were at the bottom of your airline’s priority list,” Williamson wrote in an email to HuffPost Canada.

But it’s what happened when Williamson asked for compensation that has air passenger advocates worried. The airline rejected Williamson’s claim, on the grounds that what happened was a “flight delay” and not a “denial of boarding.”

Watch: Canada’s airline industry is undergoing rapid change, not all of it good for passengers. Story continues below.

 

Because of the wording of the new air passenger regulations, airlines can skirt the compensation fees that passengers are owed when they’re bumped from flights, said Gabor Lukacs, the head of Air Passenger Rights Canada, and they will instead be on the hook for much lower flight delay payments.

“This case demonstrates that the new rules are taking away protection that passengers previously enjoyed ― exactly as we forewarned the government in our submissions,” Lukacs wrote in an email.

In this case, WestJet did a “tail swap” on the July 22 flight from Edmonton to Toronto, the first leg of the couple’s honeymoon trip. Williamson said WestJet staff informed her the new airplane had 40 fewer seats than the previously scheduled one.

When the couple arrived at the gate to start their honeymoon, they were informed that they had been switched to another flight, leaving five hours later. They had checked in through AirMiles the day before, and though WestJet made the change after check-in, Williamson said they were never informed.

AirMiles and WestJet now appear to be playing the blame game, with AirMiles saying it was never told of the change, and WestJet saying AirMiles didn’t give them contact info for the passengers.

Under Canada’s new passenger rights rules, parts of which went into force on July 15, being bumped from a flight because there is not enough space would entitle Williamson and her husband to $900 each in compensation. That’s the rate if the boarding denial causes a delay of less than six hours, which was the case.

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The main terminal at Edmonton International Airport, July 1, 2013.

But WestJet told Williamson that this doesn’t constitute denial of boarding, despite the plane not having enough seats. That’s because they changed the booking beforehand, so technically, the couple didn’t have a confirmed reservation for the flight.

“The fact that we had valid boarding passes/tickets that enabled us to make our way through security and to the gate to attempt boarding does not seem to matter,” Williamson quipped.

Under Canada’s new rules, “denial of boarding” happens when the number of seats on a plane is “less than the number of passengers who have checked in by the required time (and) hold a confirmed reservation.”

It looks like it is not WestJet who is at fault, but rather the wording of the new rules.Gabor Lukacs, Air Passenger Rights Canada

“WestJet is going to argue that at the time these passengers were at the gate, they no longer had a confirmed reservation, because their reservation had been changed a few hours earlier,” Lukacs wrote.

“So, it looks like it is not WestJet who is at fault, but rather the wording of the new rules. Before the new rules came into force, the (Canadian Transportation Agency) recognized situations like this as de facto or constructive denied boarding.”

Under the new rules for flight delays, the couple would still be eligible for $400 each in compensation ― but that part of the regulations doesn’t come into force until December.

New tricks to evade passenger rights

In talking with passengers who are members of the Air Passenger Rights Facebook group, Lukacs said he sees evidence of airlines launching new tricks to avoid responsibility under the passenger rights rules.

Airlines are “nominally cancelling (a) flight, and then creating a flight at the same time, with a different flight number, and fewer passengers on it,” Lukacs wrote.

“In one case, as I recall, when the passenger pressed the airline, they eventually paid the denied boarding compensation ― but only after it was discussed in the group.”

For its part, WestJet offered Williamson and her husband, Sean Fitzpatrick, $125 each in “WestJet dollars” ― money that can only be used to pay for flights on WestJet. Williamson maintains she is owed the full compensation for denial of boarding.

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A WestJet Boeing 737 unloading at a gate in Edmonton, Oct. 18, 2015.

WestJet did not answer specific questions about its compensation policies, but told HuffPost in an emailed statement that the airline “does not intentionally overbook or oversell its flights. 

“Unfortunately in certain circumstances, we can find ourselves in an overbook situation, when we may need to switch to a smaller aircraft for operational reasons or there may be (a) mechanical issue with a seat and we need to re-accommodate a guest.”

Williamson said she would like to see airlines change their rules so that a passenger can’t have their seat assignment changed after check-in, without the airline first speaking to that passenger.

She said staff told her the airline never asked for volunteers before bumping passengers involuntarily, a practice WestJet lays out in its tariff.

“I do not feel WestJet even followed their own policies in our specific situation,” Williamson wrote.