When is a passenger reimbursement policy not a policy? Ask Air Canada

Be very wary the next time an airline asks for volunteers to forgo a scheduled flight. The case of Armed Forces colonel Chris Johnson is a cautionary tale that may change the kinds of flight delays that airlines are responsible for, Neil Macdonald writes.

Beware next time an airline asks for volunteers to forgo a flight

So how much is an airline required to reimburse stranded passengers if a flight has to be rescheduled because of mechanical problems? The Canadian Transport Agency is to deal with a complaint on this very issue. (CBC)

Anyone who's ever tried to get a fair shake from a big, faceless company should take a few minutes to read the maddening journey of Chris Johnson, a guy who tried to do the right thing at the airport gate.

Johnson, 57, is a colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force, a fellow with the studied equanimity you often find in someone whose very job description calls for honourable behaviour.

In late 2013, he was in London, preparing to board an Air Canada flight to Ottawa, where he lives. Then the aircraft broke down, and the airline's ground staff began scrambling to assign passengers to other flights. They called for volunteers who might be willing to wait a day.

"I was on vacation, not military duty," Johnson told me the other day, "and there were a lot of people who had to get home right away, and I figured I can hang tight."

He was told to head to the baggage area and collect his suitcase, and wait for an Air Canada representative who would have hotel and meal vouchers. But that person never showed up, he later stated in an affidavit to the Canadian Transport Agency.

Back at the departure area, the Air Canada staff had disappeared. Johnson then got on the phone to Air Canada's customer service centre in Montreal. Go find a hotel, he says he was told, and submit a claim later.

Johnson then took a bus (not a taxi, because "I was treating their money as though it was mine") to the airport Holiday Inn, hardly luxury lodging.

He ate supper at the hotel, and breakfast. The bill for the room, including taxes, was 257 pounds, which, if you know anything about London, is utterly average. He ate a modest Holiday Inn meal, and the grand total charged to his card came to $531.56 Cdn.

Canadian Armed Forces Col. Christopher Johnson: It is no longer about the money, he says. He wants a ruling to determine what an airline's stranded passenger responsibility is as a matter of law. (Courtesy Christopher Johnson)

When he submitted the claim, though, Air Canada regretfully informed him that "our hotel accommodation policy allows up to $100 reimbursement towards your claim. For meals we allow $7 for breakfast, $10 lunch and $15 for dinner."

But Johnson likes to treat his own money like his own, too. So he argued. He also found email addresses on the Air Canada site (it provides precious few staff phone numbers) and sent a complaint to the airline's president, Calin Rovinescu.

No dice. One of Rovinescu's underlings wrote Johnson, informing him that "an exception to this policy … can be seen as discriminatory to those customers who received the normal assistance."

Eventually, Air Canada sent Johnson a cheque for $222, purely as a matter of "goodwill," leaving him $309 out of pocket.

"I was only asking for my expenses," says Johnson. "Nothing else."

The Montreal Convention

Johnson's next step was to contact Gabor Lukacs, a passenger rights advocate who himself has a policy: that airlines should follow the law, and the law should be enforced.

That law is reflected in something called the Montreal Convention, which governs passenger compensation, and provides for full reimbursement of reasonable costs up to nearly $9,000 if the cause is considered something within the airline's control.

So, Lukacs and Johnson filed a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency, and things started to get weird.

They asked for a copy of the reimbursement policy Air Canada had quoted in denying Johnson's expenses.

Air Canada objected. The airline would only disclose the policy if Lukacs and Johnson agreed to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Public disclosure of a document detailing how stranded passengers are treated, argued an airline lawyer, would put Air Canada at a competitive disadvantage.

Johnson refused to sign. But Air Canada had filed the policy and a supporting document with the CTA, which Lukacs promptly posted on his Air Passenger Rights website.

Interestingly, the policy dictates a much better hotel compensation for "premium" passengers than ordinary passengers.

Air Canada's passenger reimbursement guidelines, as it prefers to call them, for what it deems to be situations beyond its control, which might include airplane malfunction, depending on what the Canadian Transportation Agency rules. (Air Canada CTA submission/CBC)

When is a policy not a policy?

Air Canada then proceeded to argue that, in any event, the policy is not really a policy, even though it is titled "Expense Policy" and Air Canada staff had described it to Johnson as not just a policy, but an unbreakable policy when they denied him full compensation.

In reality, argued Air Canada, the policy is just a sort of internal guideline, some suggestions for staff, and it doesn't stipulate absolute limits, and therefore it conforms with the Montreal Convention, so Johnson's complaint should be dismissed.

"It's a policy unless it isn't, and we'll decide when it is," is how Johnson put it to me, with a typically military ability to distill the essence of a sprawling rule.

I emailed Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick with a simple question: Why would the airline take the position that its passengers don't have the right to know its reimbursement policy for stranded passengers?

His email answer (he declined an actual conversation) was that "at issue is what AC pays as goodwill in cases where the delay is beyond our control."

Goodwill? What about the legal dictates of the Montreal Convention?

And how exactly was Johnson's case "beyond our control?" Was his flight not cancelled due to a mechanical breakdown, which is Air Canada's responsibility, as opposed, for example, to inclement weather, which is not?

Fitzpatrick refused to answer subsequent questions, but the answer can be found in Air Canada's submissions to the CTA in this case.

Johnson's flight was cancelled that day, states the airline, due to "an uncontrollable electronic pump failure."

Effectively, Air Canada is saying that the proper functioning of its aircraft is something beyond its control, and which should not be considered by any law governing reimbursement.

That is a breathtaking bit of logic, which, if accepted, would appear to free Air Canada of any legal liability for just about every delay or cancellation. An airline CEO's dream.

Gabor Lukacs, a Halifax-based mathematician, has successfully forced the airline industry to change its ticketing and reimbursement practices on two prior occasions. (CBC)

Still, as the case advanced at the CTA, Air Canada finally offered to reimburse the rest of Johnson's expenses "solely on a goodwill basis."

But he declined: with crisp military rectitude, he says it is a not a matter of goodwill, but a matter of law, and requires a ruling, as a matter of public interest.

For him to take the money now and go away would just not be, well, honourable.

Incidentally, Johnson and Lukacs are also asking the CTA to order Air Canada to reprocess every compensation for every stranded passenger in the past two years.

The ruling, when it comes, will be of great interest to anyone who flies the national airline, and in particular anyone who might think of raising a hand the next time the Air Canada gate agent calls for volunteers to stay behind.

A spokeswoman for the Canadian Transportation Agency says its hearings operate on the principle of open court, and documentation can be requested at this address.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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