Overbooked

Airlines have been under fire in recent weeks after a video of a United Airlines passenger being forcibly removed from a plane went viral. The man was brutally, and unacceptably, removed from the plane because the airline needed to make room for crew members being repositioned for their next shift.

Despite the reason for this man’s removal, much of the debate surrounding this incident has unfoundedly centred upon whether airlines should be allowed to overbook flights. That isn’t the discussion we should be having. When executed properly, overbooking is a sound business practice that benefits both the airline and the passengers – the airline increases revenue on aggregate while the individual passenger accepts an offer they deem to be net positive to give up their seat. The discussion we should be having is how to fix existing regulations that do not force airlines to fairly resolve cases of flight delay, flight cancellation or denial of boarding.

Yesterday, bill C-49 was introduced to the Canadian House of Commons in an attempt to do just that. Three proposed amendments to the Transportation Act in particular aim to address the responsibility of airlines to passengers in such cases.

86.11 (1) The Agency shall, after consulting with the Minister, make regulations in relation to flights to, from, and within Canada, including connecting flights,

(b) respecting the carrier’s obligations in the case of flight delay, flight cancellation, or denial of boarding, including

(ii) the minimum standards of treatment of passengers that the carrier is required to meet and the minimum compensation the carrier is required to pay for inconvenience when the delay, cancellation, or denial of boarding is within the carrier’s control,

(iii) the minimum standards of treatment of passengers that the carrier is required to meet when the delay, cancellation, or denial of boarding is within the carrier’s control, but is required for safety purposes, including in situations of mechanical malfunctions,

(iv) the carrier’s obligation to ensure that passengers complete their itinerary when the delay, cancellation, or denial of boarding is due to situations outside the carrier’s control, such as natural phenomena and security events,

The first thing to note is that the Transport Minister has confirmed that involuntary denial of boarding is restricted through the “minimum standards of treatment” required when the issue is within the carrier’s control. The legislation will set out a minimum amount of compensation that must be offered to entice people to give up their seats. If an insufficient number of passengers are willing to take the minimum, airlines will have to keep upping that offer until enough people voluntarily agree to give up their seats.

The second amendment above (iii) is where things get a little bit more grey. When the issue is within the carrier’s control, but delay, cancellation or denial of boarding is required for safety purposes, the carrier is not explicitly required to provide compensation to passengers. Examples of this case may be mechanical malfunction on the aircraft or shift restrictions of the crew (I was recently on a flight that experienced a 30 minute delay on the runway and was cancelled as a result because the crew’s shift would have exceeded the maximum duty limits if we had taken off). In these cases, I’m sure that the airlines will be required to provide accommodations and a rescheduled flight for affected passengers but any other compensation will be determined as this bill progresses to become law.

Finally, I would assume that when the issue is outside of the carrier’s control, a rescheduled flight would be a part of the carrier’s obligation to ensure that passengers complete their itinerary.

Only approximately 1 in 10,000 passengers on U.S. carriers are involuntarily denied boarding each year, but legislation such as bill C-49, if passed, will ensure that never happens again.