A pregnant woman and her fiancé couldn’t board a flight from Toronto to Quebec City last month after Porter Airlines staff said the flight was overweight and the couple weren’t welcome.
Annette Bice and Geoff Hotrum were leaving for a final romantic weekend away before the birth of their first child, expected in December.
“It was comical, hard to believe, we thought: are you kidding?” said Hotrum.
Porter flight 513 was delayed more than half an hour as Porter staff started asking confirmed passengers in the lounge if they would volunteer not to fly, said Hotrum. It was explained to passengers that weather conditions on the route made it necessary to lessen the plane’s weight.
But when an insufficient number of passengers agreed to postpone their travel, Porter staff began calling out names, including the couple’s.
“You’re kicking off the pregnant woman,” Hotrum recalled asking the attendant at the time.
“It’s lucky I’m easy going,” said Bice, reflecting on how she felt when she was informed she was “selected at random” not to fly.
Faced with postponing until two days later because of Porter’s limited Quebec flight schedule, the couple reluctantly agreed to take a flight to Montreal, rent a car and drive to Quebec City to salvage their vacation.
Porter offered to pay for the cost of the car rental and meals, and gave the couple flight vouchers worth $1150. But the vouchers expire in six months, must be used only by the couple, and might not be usable all at once.
“We’re not sure we’ll be able to fly once, let alone multiple times,” in the next six months, Hotrum said.
Denied boarding compensation is spelled out in something called an airline tariff with the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), which regulates the airline industry.
“The airline should offer at minimum what’s in the tariff,” Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the CTA Scott Streiner said.
Streiner told Global News he recently asked the presidents of Canada’s airlines, including Porter, to provide information to consumers “in plain language” so they know about their legal rights if they’re denied boarding.
“What we’ve said is that the information should be transparent, clear, fair and consistent — we need to make sure consumers are aware of what their rights are,” Streiner said in an interview.
But Porter’s compensation offer to Bice and Hotrum appear to fall far short of what is spelled out in their tariff for domestic air travel.
“Under the law, Porter is required to pay compensation in cash in the amount of $800 in this situation,” said Gabor Lukacs, a Halifax-based air passenger rights expert who looked at the case for Global News.
Lukacs regularly speaks out on consumer complaints with airlines and is frequently critical of the the CTA, which he says is too soft on airlines when they breach the rules.
“In this case, Porter was caught with its pants down, no doubt. What Porter is doing is clearly wrong, I have no doubt about it. Those passengers had confirmed seats, confirmed bookings. They presented themselves for check in. They checked in, and then they were bumped from the flight in which they held bookings,” Lukacs said.
Porter Airlines declined to be interviewed for this story. But Brad Cicero, the airline’s director of communications and public affairs, responded by email to say the airline was not bound to pay $800 per passenger.
“Cash compensation of $800 provided for in the tariff applies only to ‘oversold flights’ – in other words, where more tickets are sold than there are seats on the aircraft, ” Cicero wrote.
“In this particular case, Porter had not oversold the flight. Rather, we were required to remove passengers for safety reasons because the en-route weather conditions that day reduced the aircraft’s maximum allowable takeoff weight.”
But Lukacs said Porter’s explanation doesn’t ring true.
“I am finding it troubling that Porter can get away with such a piece of nonsense. Overselling a flight means that they are not able to provide seats to all passengers who bought tickets. Whether it is a weight issue or something else is entirely irrelevant. It shows that they are using too small aircraft for the distances that they are flying,” he said.
“Allowing Porter to evade its obligation to pay denied boarding compensation this way renders the tariff obligation meaningless.”
Porter said it would extend the flight credits offered to 12 months, if they couldn’t be used sooner.
As for why Bice, now eight months pregnant, was selected for removal from the flight, Cicero explains they didn’t intend to target someone who is pregnant.
“The fact that she was pregnant is certainly unfortunate, but not a factor in the situation. We do our best to be compassionate at all times, which is why volunteers are always solicited as a first priority,” Cicero said. “It is difficult when someone is unable to make a trip as intended, regardless of the reason. Passengers are identified to travel on later flights based on a number of factors, including the type of fare, if they are in the middle of a connecting flight itinerary (or) if they are minors.”
Story by Sean O’Shea, Global News