Ottawa vows to stop forced bumping due to overbooked flights, but critics question if plan will work

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Ottawa is promising that the days of forcibly bumping passengers from overbooked flights will soon be over.

That should provide much relief to concerned Canadians who fear being forced off flights they’ve booked months in advance. However, some critics wonder if the government’s promise is perhaps too good to be true.

“It seems to me there’s something not working out there,” says a skeptical Brett Doyle, from Stratford, P.E.I., who recently endured his own bumping saga.

But Ottawa is adamant that new rules coming will put an end to Canadians’ nightmare experiences with overbooked flights.

The federal government introduced legislation Tuesday for a passenger bill of rights. Set to be in place by 2018, it will create a national standard for how airline passengers are treated in Canada.

The legislation will mandate that airlines can no longer force people to miss a flight simply because the carrier has oversold the number of seats on a plane.

“When you buy a ticket, you expect and deserve to have that contract fulfilled,” said Marc Roy, spokesperson for Transport Minister Marc Garneau, who introduced the bill.

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Transport Minister Marc Garneau has introduced legislation to create a new passenger bill of rights. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Airlines will still be able to overbook flights, Roy said, however, in cases where there are more passengers than seats, carriers will only be allowed to bump willing customers.

The legislation will set out a minimum amount of compensation that must be offered to entice people to give up their seats. And if no passengers are willing to take the minimum, airlines will have to keep topping up that offer until enough people voluntarily agree to wait for the next flight.

“Eventually someone will — in that situation, voluntarily with that compensation — give up their seat,” said Roy.

Minimum compensation requirements will be worked out by the Canadian Transportation Agency.

What if no one volunteers?

The legislation introduced Tuesday comes on the heels of numerous media reports about angry passengers being forcibly bumped from oversold flights.

CBC News has covered several sagas involving Air Canada passengers who, because they were bumped, missed everything from a day’s vacation to a $10,000 dream cruise of the Galapagos.

As for the Doyle family in P.E.I., they spoke out after their 10-year-old-son Cole was bumped from an Air Canada flight during their March Break vacation to Costa Rica.

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Ten-year-old Cole Doyle, from Stratford, P.E.I., was recently bumped from an Air Canada flight. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Cole’s father, Brett Doyle, says he definitely wants a change when it comes to how airlines overbook flights and treat paying passengers. But he questions how the legislation can guarantee that enough people will give up their seats on an oversold flight — even for a good price.

“What happens if you get in a situation where there’s 20 seats on a plane, you sell 24, but all 24 people want to fly?” he says. “When no one wants to voluntarily give up their seat, I just don’t understand how they’re going to work around that.”

Passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs is even more skeptical of the coming rules. Just because the government creates regulations for airlines, he says, it doesn’t guarantee that it will have the means to enforce them.

“We may have them written down, perhaps more nicely, more concisely, more transparently,” said Lukacs in an interview with CBC News.

But, he adds, “What is going to change in terms of enforcement? What is going to change in terms of consequences for an airline that chooses to ignore the rights of passengers?”

Why not ban overbooking?

Doyle suggests a better way to guarantee that airlines will stop bumping passengers involuntarily is to get rid of overbooking altogether.

Airlines may choose to oversell seats on flights to maximize profit, calculating that a percentage of booked passengers will cancel or not show up. The practice is perfectly legal, but Doyle says it just doesn’t make good business sense.

“There’s no other business or industry that you can sell something multiple times,” he says. “You shouldn’t be able to sell a seat, 22A, on a flight from Charlottetown to Toronto twice.”

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Bumping victim Brett Doyle believes airlines shouldn’t be allowed to overbook flights. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

The legislation doesn’t ban overbooking, Roy says, because it can actually be beneficial to passengers. It can help keep airline costs down and provide opportunities for passengers desperate to get on a flight last minute.

“You have to be prudent because overbooking allows airlines to be more efficient,” he said.

The coming legislation could lead to airlines cutting down on their tendency to overbook, Roy added. That’s because it may end up costing them big bucks every time they have to pay passengers to convince them to give up their seats.

“You have to find that sweet spot,” he said.

When asked how the government can guarantee that airlines will follow the new rules, Roy replied they won’t have a choice. “It will be the law of the land. It will not be a suggested agreement.”

In a written statement, Air Canada said it’s looking forward to participating in consultations to create the regulations for the new passenger bill of rights.

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Ottawa vows to stop forced bumping due to overbooked flights, but critics question if plan will work

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