'Very troubling:' Passenger rights advocate says Swoop failed Canadians

Gabor Lukacs, founder of Air Passenger Rights, says the passengers on Flight WO651 could be eligible for compensation if they use the Montreal Convention, part of the Carriage by Air Act.

Some passengers say they are planning to take the airline to court

Swoop, which claims to be a smaller airline, has to pay between $125 to $500 to passengers for applicable flights when flyers are delayed by three hours or more in reaching their final destination. (WestJet)

An air passenger rights advocate says the botched Swoop Airlines flight from Cancun to Hamilton is an example of how Canada's new compensation rules fail to serve the public.

Gabor Lukacs, founder of Air Passenger Rights, tells CBC News he thinks Swoop — which was supposed to bring home 158 Canadians from Cancún to Hamilton Tuesday — will try to "hide behind loopholes" but says passengers should try and sue under an older statue that is still in effect.

Those schedule to board Flight WO651 say they had trouble getting information from the airline, were offered "dingy" places to stay in unsafe areas of Cancún without transportation and in some cases, told they'd need to wait days for a new flight home. 

"It's incredibly troubling. It demonstrates how poorly the situation was handled," Lukacs says.

Swoop told CBC News Wednesday it cancelled the trip set to land at John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport after a flight attendant on the plane was injured inbound to Cancún International Airport before Flight WO651.

"Industry regulations stipulate that we cannot operate a flight without a full complement of flight attendants," the airline wrote in a statement.

Lukacs says Swoop, which is owned by WestJet, should have had a back-up crew.

"This is not an unusual situation and it's a perfectly reasonable expectation to have a backup crew at a popular destination," he says.

Lukacs also adds the airline should have immediately rebooked flights to other airlines and offered transportation to hotels in the area.

Swoop tells CBC in a statement Thursday it does not arrange back-up flight crews in every location it flies to "due to the unlikelihood of a flight attendant becoming ill or injured during a flight."

"Travellers were automatically rebooked on the next available Swoop flight. However, we understand that travel arrangements are unique to travellers and, if the Swoop flight was not satisfactory, we are following our Flight Interruption Policies which include booking travellers on an alternate flight with a carrier that Swoop has a commercial agreement with," Swoop writes.

Airline passenger advocate Gabor Lukacs says new regulations do a better job of protecting Swoop than customers aboard its botched flight, but he thinks passengers still have a chance to sue for damages. (Robert Short/CBC)

Customers say they paid hundreds of dollars for food, transportation, hotels and flights they re-booked on their own.

Shannon Dickson, 35, a law clerk in Hamilton, tells CBC News she hasn't tallied the entire amount because she's scared of the total cost but says she has forked out at least $500 — some of which includes what she says is a $15 fee to contact Swoop customer service.

"They can't just dump you in the middle of somewhere and say, 'you're on your own,' " Dickson says.

The airline says it is compensating expenses in accordance with its flight interruptions policies for Mexico.

Yesterday, Dickson and other passengers taking a United Airlines flight back to Toronto from Houston started making a passenger list to band together and take the airline to court.

"I'm about the principle of it," she says. "They really messed up and put a lot of people in danger."

Current compensation rules have 'loopholes'

Lukacs thinks Swoop will use the flight attendant's injury to try and dodge lawsuits.

Under the current rules, if a flight is delayed, airlines have to provide updates every 30 minutes until confirming a new departure time and it must offer any new information as soon as possible.

Passengers on delayed flights can contact the airline and file a claim for compensation within one year of the trip.

The airline has 30 days to pay up or explain why it believes compensation isn't warranted.

Those who don't agree with the airline's decision can take it up with the Canadian Transportation Agency, which Lukacs claims has "cozy relationships with airlines" and forces the passenger to prove delays or cancellations could have been prevented.

The rules also state Swoop, which claims to be a smaller airline, has to pay between $125 to $500 to passengers for applicable flights when flyers are delayed by three hours or more in reaching their final destination.

But unlike European Union regulations, airlines don't have to compensate customers if uncontrollable factors such as bad weather or mechanical problems discovered outside of routine maintenance checks delays or cancels the trip.

"This is a point where the new rules are causing lots of problems," Lukacs says.

"Swoop claims to be a small airline, which is dubious given it's owned by WestJet … The set of new rules is a way of deceiving the public. It's more protection for the airlines."

Passengers have legal options

Lukacs says the passengers on Flight WO651 could be eligible for compensation if they use the Montreal Convention, part of the Carriage by Air Act.

And that compensation would cover out-of-pocket expenses and missed time from work.

"The passengers should group up and sue swoop under Montreal convention and new rules and see what [the courts] say," Lukacs says.

"They may have to go to small claims, but Swoop will have to prove there was nothing they could have done to prevent it."

Swoop has a flight scheduled to leave Cancún at 5:05 p.m. and land in Hamilton at 8:45 p.m. today. The flight has been delayed to leave at 5:40 p.m. and is expected to arrive in Hamilton at 9:20 p.m. today.


Bobby Hristova


Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca

With files from Sophia Harris


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