Sunwing Flight 656: Why passengers are unlikely to win damages due to unruly fliers

Airline passengers who have their travel plans interrupted when unruly passengers force a plane to turn around or be diverted are likely to have a difficult time collecting damages for the disruption.

Airlines not responsible for acts of 'third parties'

Passengers who may feel they deserve compensatory damages for having their vacation plans derailed because of unruly passengers are probably out of luck. (iStock)

Airline passengers who have their travel plans interrupted when unruly passengers force a plane to turn around or be diverted are likely to have a difficult time collecting damages for the disruption.

Those aboard Wednesday's Cuba-bound Sunwing flight that was forced to turn back to Toronto because of the alleged misbehaviour of two female passengers, reportedly received a $75 voucher from Sunwing for future trips and a $15 meal voucher at Pearson. 

The flight took off for a second time from Toronto around 11 p.m. Wednesday with a new flight crew.

But those who feel they deserve more compensation for having their vacation plans derailed, even temporarily, are probably out of luck.

Under Flights Rights Canada,  a six-point code of conduct that was created for Canada’s airlines and voluntarily adopted by the major Canadian air carriers, nothing  "would make the airline responsible for acts of nature or the acts of third parties, according to the government website.

"Airlines are legally obligated to maintain the highest standards of aviation safety and cannot be encouraged to fly when it is not safe to do so."

In the case of this week's Sunwing flight, the pilot of the 737 aircraft described the two female passengers as disruptive "in a serious manner," and reported to NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command) while the plane was in U.S. airspace that the aircraft was "under threat."

NORAD scrambled two CF-18 fighter jets based out of Bagotville, Que., to escort Flight 656 back to Toronto. The women are facing a series of charges, including endangering the safety of an aircraft, smoking on an aircraft and uttering threats.

Pilot 'does what he deems necessary'

A passenger could try to seek further compensation from the airline, claiming that they believed the pilot overreacted. But John McKenna, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association of Canada, said "they wouldn't get very far."

"The pilot is captain on board," said McKenna. "He does what he deems necessary. No pilot likes to turn a plane around. It's his prerogative or her prerogative to do so if he or she thinks the safety of the passengers is at risk."

"But some people will try anything to get compensation."

Passengers could always try to launch civil legal action against those responsible for diverting the flight, but if the delay resulted in missing a day or a couple days of vacation, the time and effort in court would likely surpass any compensation they may receive.

However, trying to recoup expenses caused by the diversion may be worth it for the airline. Meaning, in this case, Sunwing could take action against the two accused. 

Indeed, the airline is currently seeking legal action against two members of a Cape Breton family accused of smoking on a flight to the Dominican Republic last year. Sunwing is suing the two, claiming their actions forced the plane to be diverted to Bermuda. The airline is suing for the damages and expenses incurred for having to divert, which include airport fees and landing fees.

In the current Sunwing case, the airline could sue or seek restitution as did Air Canada in a case against a Calgary man last year. The man's unruly behaviour forced a London-to-Calgary flight to land in Edmonton. He was given a one-year probation term, was fined $4,000 and was ordered to pay $15,200 in restitution to Air Canada.

With files from The Canadian Press


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