A Vancouver Island couple are crying foul after Air Canada gave their seats to other passengers on an overbooked flight, leaving them stranded at the gate and unable to get home to their small children.

“There was much more to it than just being bumped off a flight for a few hours,” said Monique Jessey, of Nanaimo, B.C., who checked in to fly home from Calgary with her husband in August.

“I actually started crying — which I don’t do in public very often — and said, ‘You don’t understand. We need to get back to our kids.'”

Air Canada gate

At the gate, Air Canada agents told Lee Jessey he didn't have a seat, because the flight had been overbooked. (CBC)

The Jesseys are among countless passengers Air Canada has bumped from flights, because its policy is to sell more tickets than its planes have seats.

 “As long as they are making their bottom line, it doesn’t matter. If it works for them, it works for them, and to hell if it works for you,” said her husband Lee.

The Jesseys had gone to Calgary for a wedding and had left their children, ages 15 months and four years, in the care of Lee’s parents on nearby Saltspring Island. The grandparents then planned to bring the kids by ferry to meet their parents at home when they arrived.

No warning

When the couple checked in at the Calgary airport, they had no trouble printing boarding passes. The flight was on time, so they called the children’s grandparents in B.C. and told them to head to the ferry.

Then, an Air Canada agent slapped a standby sticker on Lee’s bag. At first, he said he didn’t know why.

“We had to wait for everyone to pass through the gate and start boarding before they could even tell us what was going on,” said Lee, who was told he wouldn’t be getting a seat because the flight was overbooked.

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“You just can’t believe it. You’ve paid full price for that seat, and it doesn’t exist,” said Lee.

After Monique told the counter agent she didn’t want to fly without her husband, she said the agent turned around and took away her seat too — without asking first.

“She said, ‘We’ve now bumped you and given your seat to somebody else.’ So, at this point I’m really upset because both of us aren’t getting home,” said Monique.

By then, they couldn’t reach Lee’s parents, who were headed to the couple’s home with the small children and didn’t have a key to get in.

 “And all of it was just unnecessary. Completely unnecessary,” said Monique.

The Jesseys said they were among several irate passengers who were also bumped from flights that day.

“The other people were visibly upset too. At this point, the lady even said, 'I don’t know if I can get you guys out today.' And we are thinking we can’t overnight in Calgary,” said Monique.

Other passengers bumped

She said a sympathetic Air Canada agent then bumped more passengers to get the Jesseys out on a full flight two hours later. According to the couple, she said she has to deal with this every day and urged them to complain to the airline.

The Jesseys

The Jesseys' two small children were en route to meet them, with their grandparents, who couldn't be reached. (CBC)

“She was upset too,” said Monique. “She told me that they need to hear how this is personally affecting people and emotionally affecting people. That it’s not just bumping people off flights. There’s a bigger picture here.”

“I almost felt worse for them than I did for us,” said Lee. “I just don’t know how you could do that as part of your job every day — turning customers away from their seats. You couldn’t pay me enough.”

Overbooking by Air Canada carries on, despite a litany of complaints and a May ruling by the Canadian Transportation Agency ordering the airline to compensate passengers $200 to $800 each when this happens.

The Jesseys said airline staff in Calgary gave them $100 cash each, which was $200 less than what the couple would be entitled to under the new rules. The airline later refused to pay more compensation because it didn't have to start paying the mandatory higher rates until Sept. 18.

“It’s just wrong and I want people to know this is how they operate,” said Monique.

Bags didn't arrive

Getting out on the later flight didn’t end the couple’s hassles. They managed to connect with their family, but their bags didn’t arrive with them. Lee had packed his keys, so they had to leave their car at the airport.

“When we said we were bumped off of an Air Canada flight and explained the situation everyone just kind of went ‘Oh yeah’ and they totally understood. Which is kind of pathetic and sad,” said Monique.

Air Canada bags

The couple's bags were left behind in Calgary, when they got out on a later flight. The bags didn't arrive in Nanaimo, B.C. until the next day. (CBC)

The family were able to get into their home by using a key pad, otherwise they would have been locked out all night. When their bags showed up the next day, they were damaged.

“As a gesture of goodwill, I would pay them compensation according to the new ruling. Just to show that perhaps Air Canada is not as bad as most Canadians believe it to be, said Gabor Lukacs, the Halifax man whose complaint to the regulator led to the higher payouts for bumped passengers.

Air Canada said it continues to overbook to keep prices down and make up for money it loses, when its highest-paying customers cancel refundable tickets at the last minute.

“As we sell flexible, fully refundable tickets to worldwide customers connecting in from other airlines, our customer no-show rate is much higher than at carriers that do not offer fully refundable tickets or have the same network structure,” said a statement from Air Canada spokesperson Angela Mah, who added the airline regrets what happened to the Jesseys.

Industry practices differ

Lukacs points out that WestJet states that it does not overbook flights, yet its ticket prices are essentially the same.

“And the reality is that WestJet does allow passengers to cancel or change their flights even shortly before the flight’s time for a small fee,” he added. “So, there really is no justification for what Air Canada is doing.”

Gabor Lukacs

Air Canada critic Gabor Lukacs complained to the regulator about the airline's overbooking practices, and won higher compensation for affected passengers. (CBC)

Lukacs said he believes the airline does it simply to make more money, by selling refundable tickets — for several hundred dollars more than regular ones — on flights that are fully booked.

“They are typically bought by business passengers or passengers at least who are very wealthy. And this is happening at the cost or at the expense of the average economy passengers,” said Lukacs.

“They sell the same seat to more than one person, which is completely dishonest and unethical.”

Lukacs says he has seen confidential data on how many flights Air Canada overbooks because the airline submitted that information in response to his complaint.

Oversell rates 'damning': critic

The airline then asked for, and got, a gag order, so Lukacs can’t talk about the numbers. He believes Canadians would love to see them.

“Air Canada wants to keep its oversell rates secret because they’re damning,” he said.

Monique and Lee Jessey said they will never fly with Air Canada again and they want to encourage others to do the same.

“In the end, you are the one making them their money, no matter how small they think you are,” said Lee.

This comes amid reports that the Harper government may announce an airline passenger bill of rights in this month's throne speech.

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