New Bill of Rights for Canadian Air Passengers to Address Overbooking

by Daniel Nikulin
overbooking passengers cabin

In lieu of this week’s United Airlines PR disaster, that began as an all too familiar case of overbooking a flight and ended with a paying passenger brutally extracted from a plane, the Canadian government is set to introduce legislation to address the issue of airlines ‘bumping’ passengers off overbooked flights.

The bill, promised last fall but slated for this spring, will require clear minimum requirements for compensation by airlines when flights are overbooked, and will also cover redress fees for lost luggage. Unclear, however, is whether the legislation would set industry-wide standards or focus more on matching compensation levels of those offered by airlines in Europe and the U.S.

united airlines overbooking

Until the United Airlines fiasco, most travellers weren’t even aware such practices occurred, or to what frequency, if they were. Currently, most North American scheduled airlines regularly overbook their flights, unwilling to fly with empty seats, relying on a 20% ‘no-show’ factor. In cases when a flight is oversold, airlines will offer passengers willing to take the next flight compensation in the form of future travel vouchers, and sometimes even a hotel night and meal vouchers.

“We recognize that when a passenger books a ticket, they are entitled to certain rights.” – Marc Garneau, Canada Transport Minister

WestJet specifically promotes itself as a carrier that never oversells their seats and charter airlines, like Air Transat and Sunwing, only sell the number of seats available on board.

Scheduled airlines work a little differently though, and with paper thin margins, can’t afford to fly without bums in seats. The maximum rate south of the border for airlines compensating passengers who volunteer to take the next flight is $1500USD, where in Canada, it is $800CAD. It isn’t federal law, however, and there isn’t a mandate for any type of compensation.

As often as getting bumped by an airline happens in Canada, only 55 complaints were filed with the Canadian Transportation Agency in 2015-2016, accounting for less than 4% of all CTA complaints. The vast majority of instances are handled by the airline with a fair enough payout that a complaint isn’t even registered.

westjet tarmac

Still, the issue is important enough to have a serious look at. In the United States, the largest scheduled carriers bumped a staggering 475, 054 passengers from flights in 2016. If that practice extends north of the border to that degree, a better system and payout must be in place.

Tips to Keep from Getting Bumped

Advance Check-in

Most airlines give passengers the option to check-in for their flights in advance, ranging from 24-48 hours prior to departure. Take advantage of this service as those who have checked in are less likely to get bounced.

Select a Seat

Likewise, those who have a specific seat assignment are less likely to get bumped – especially those who have paid extra for a preferred seat.

Show up on Time

Those running late for their flight, checked-in or not, have a higher likelihood of their seat being given away. Even if you have checked-in online 24-hours in advance, running up to the gate with 15 minutes to take-off may not end well.

Buy the Higher Fare

As a general rule, those who’ve paid more for their seat have a better chance of keeping it. That applies to all classes of service. Within economy class, there are different fare levels. Air Canada, for example, offers Tango, Flex and Latitude pricing. If a flight is overbooked, Tango paying customers will be looked at first if needing to make room. For the highest chance of taking a specific flight, buy the more expensive fare – it’s got other perks too!

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