What was supposed to be a dream holiday to Las Vegas booked through Air Canada Vacations was marred for two Nova Scotia couples by flight delays, lost luggage and a battle over unexpected expenses.
The experience was so frustrating they sought guidance from an advocate for passenger rights as they subsequently waded into the world of airline compensation.
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Samantha Chaulk and her partner, Steve Healy, along with another couple, were scheduled on Dec. 28 to fly from Halifax to Toronto, then on to Las Vegas so she could fulfill her dream of seeing Celine Dion in concert.
The problems began even before the plane left the tarmac.
After boarding, Chaulk says two passengers decided to get off because their Toronto connection was cancelled. The pilot agreed, she says, and it took 45 minutes.
"He reattached the catwalk and let them depart," Chaulk said.
In an email to CBC News, Air Canada spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur blamed the delay on "severe winter weather conditions." She also says some passengers opted not to board the plane, causing a delay in retrieving their luggage from the cargo hold.
As a result, Chaulk and her group missed their connecting flight from Toronto to Las Vegas. They were rebooked on a flight to Calgary the following day at 4 p.m. and forced to stay overnight in Toronto.
The next day, there was an earlier flight direct to Las Vegas. They were travelling economy, but this one had empty seats in business class.
"They told us that it was against their policy to upgrade anyone's tickets due to a missed connection," Chaulk said.
She suggested other passengers be bumped to business class and they would take the economy seats. Air Canada refused, and the flight departed for Las Vegas with empty seats.
Arthur, the Air Canada spokeswoman, told CBC the airline is under no obligation to upgrade.
But Gabor Lukacs, a passenger rights advocate based in Halifax, said he believes Air Canada was violating the rules by refusing to put the group on the next available flight.
"There was a flight. There were seats available on the flight. These passengers should have been put on that flight, period, full stop," he said.
Where's the luggage?
The couple took the Calgary connection, and by the time they arrived in Las Vegas they had missed a day of their vacation, including a pre-paid Cirque du Soleil performance.
Despite that, Chaulk says they were "thrilled" to be in Las Vegas.
The excitement didn't last long. Their luggage didn't arrive.
They filed a claim right away and were told their bags would likely arrive within 24 hours. That didn't happen, and with nothing more than carry-on items, the group had to buy new clothes.
"I was very careful, as were our travel companions, with what we did buy because we weren't sure what was covered," Chaulk said. "Air Canada was telling us they would give us $50 a day in compensation, so we were pretty careful with what we purchased while we were there."
The bags finally arrived on the evening of Jan. 1, the day before the two couples returned home.
Chaulk and her travelling companions have filed claims with their credit card company (which provides $500 travel insurance) and with Air Canada.
'We're not looking for a handout'
Chaulk said it's not a matter of double-dipping; they simply want Air Canada to pay the difference between their out-of-pocket expenses and the amount they'll receive from credit card insurance. In total, each couple is claiming just more than $1,300.
"We're not looking for a handout from Air Canada," Chaulk said. "We're not looking to win the lottery with Air Canada. We just want the money back that we had to spend for costs that weren't anticipated."
In an email to Chaulk, Air Canada told her its liabilities for schedule interruptions are limited.
It hasn't refused to reimburse, but is insisting they provide original receipts. Chaulk had forwarded them to their credit card travel insurance company. She sent scanned copies to Air Canada but it will not accept them, a position Lukacs disputes.
"Under the law you don't have to provide original receipts," he said. "You don't even need receipts as long as your expenses are reasonable and you can verify by affidavit, for example."
Lukacs said in the case of baggage delay, the airline's liability under an international convention governing air travel is up to roughly $2,000 for reasonable expenses.
Air Canada apologizes
In an email to Chaulk, Air Canada baggage claims specialist Andrea Raymond said the airline was "sorry if we failed to meet your expectations … and sincerely regret your disappointment." She went to offer "sincere apologies for the lapse in our service."
Air Canada provided each of the four passengers with a $250 flight voucher, but Chaulk said after her experience she won't likely fly with the company again if there's an alternative.
Chaulk said the experience has been frustrating and without Lukacs' guidance on passenger rights, they would have given up the fight for reimbursement.
Arthur, the Air Canada spokeswoman, said the airline is keeping in touch with the group "so that once we have received all required information we can complete the compensation review and respond to the claim."