North

'I felt very belittled': Yellowknife chaperones removed from Air Canada flight home

Two Yellowknife women denied passage on their Air Canada Express flight from Vancouver to Yellowknife say they weren’t treated with the professionalism they were due.

Passenger rights advocate says rules favour airlines when it comes to passenger removal

An Air Canada Express Dash 8 landing at Vancouver International Airport. Two Yellowknife women were asked to leave their Air Canada Express flight from Vancouver to Yellowknife after confusion arose over their seating. (Mike Hillman/CBC News)

Two chaperones for more than a dozen students from the Northwest Territories on a summer tour of B.C. universities were kicked off their Air Canada Express flight home to Yellowknife from Vancouver on July 19.

Rachel Tambour-Zoe, 55, said her ordeal with Canada's largest air carrier began when she realized the tickets she thought she had upgraded to business class for her and her co-chaperone at the airport check-in counter, had not been.

Tambour-Zoe is the Yellowknives Dene First Nation post-secondary mentorship co-ordinator. She was the lead chaperone on a field trip with the students, all from Ndilo and Detah, two Dene communities near Yellowknife. They paid for the trip after raising more than $17,000 through bake sales and other fundraising efforts led by Tambour-Zoe.

She said that after paying for what she thought was an upgrade to business class seating, she boarded the plane to discover her assigned seat was in economy class.

"I asked the flight attendant — 'I upgraded my seats to those big seats up there.' I said, 'How come I'm put back here on this regular seat?'"

At that point Tambour-Zoe said instead of trying to sort out what could have gone wrong — that she might have been sold what's known as preferred seating instead of business class seating — members of the cabin crew began to treat her as a problem passenger.

It could have been an easy enough mistake for a ticket agent to make. Tambour-Zoe, who normally flies WestJet, didn't know what Air Canada called the seats at the front of the plane. She said she described them to the agent at the ticket counter as "those big seats up in the front."

Alyssa Cochrane, 27, the co-chaperone who was also kicked off the flight, confirmed Tambour-Zoe's account.

Rachel Tambour-Zoe, left, and Alyssa Cochrane on their WestJet flight home the day after being asked to leave their scheduled Air Canada Express flight from Vancouver to Yellowknife. (Submitted by Rachel Tambour-Zoe)

Source of misunderstanding

Tambour-Zoe said she was charged $75 for the upgrade, far less than what she might have expected to pay for the business class upgrade, but she didn't think of it that way.

She thought the agent understood what she wanted, and charged her accordingly. It's not unheard of for business class seats to be had for a song as an upgrade at the last minute.

An Air Canada spokesperson confirmed in an email that "preferred seats in economy class offering additional leg-room [were] purchased, and not a seat in the business class cabin."

Tambour-Zoe said she did not receive any understanding or sympathy from cabin flight crew at the time.

"I felt very belittled," she said. "I just felt … I felt very, very, very low class."

Tambour-Zoe then asked for her money back on the upgrade, but was told to sit in her assigned seating, which both she and Cochrane say they did.

She insists she ultimately complied with the cabin crew's wishes, raised no disturbance and did not verbally abuse any of the cabin crew. But she and Cochrane were told to get off the flight.

She said the entire episode couldn't have lasted longer than a minute or two.

Cochrane said she remained silent during the exchange, and was told to get off the flight because she was travelling on the same ticket as Tambour-Zoe.

"I didn't even say two words," Cochrane said. "I'm like, why am I being kicked off? [The flight attendant said] 'Because you guys are travelling together.'

Rebecca Vrdolak, who was travelling with the group, said Tambour-Zoe was sitting quietly in her assigned seat when a crew member approached her and asked her to leave.

"From what we saw she was being reasonable, and they just kicked her off."

Vrdolak said she told a crew member that Tambour-Zoe was responsible for the students, including a minor for whom Tambour-Zoe was the guardian during the field trip.

Tambour-Zoe and Cochrane left the plane and immediately booked flights to Yellowknife with WestJet for the next morning.

Passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs says authorities will generally side with airlines when it comes to kicking a passenger off a flight. (CBC)

Had she received a sympathetic ear from Air Canada flight attendants, Tambour-Zoe said she would have more quickly accepted her seating arrangements.

"They need to be a little more compassionate towards their passengers because the way I was treated was very, very unprofessional."

'Verbally abusive,' airline says

In an emailed statement, Debra Williams, a spokesperson for Jazz Aviation, which operated the flight under the Air Canada Express brand, said "a passenger became verbally abusive to the boarding agents."

"Once onboard, the situation continued and the passenger insisted to be placed in the business cabin, however, the tickets and boarding cards indicated preferred seats within the economy cabin."

Williams said crew were unable to "de-escalate the situation" and "for the comfort and safety of other customers and crew, the decision was finally taken to remove the disruptive customer from the aircraft."

The spokesperson did not say why Cochrane was asked to leave the flight. The spokesperson also did not say if cabin crew were aware that a number of students were left without chaperones to complete their travels.

No recourse, advocate says

Tambour-Zoe insists she was neither abusive nor disruptive. But it's her word against the airlines, which is under no obligation to provide details or evidence of what happened on the flight.

Gabor Lukacs, a passengers rights advocate and founder of airpassengerrights.ca, says that's a problem.

"What I am seeing in many cases is that it becomes the situation of the word of the passenger against the word of the crew," Lukacs said. "All authorities tend to assume that if a passenger is removed, there must have been a big reason for that."

He said short of witnesses stepping forward to describe what they saw, the only other reasonable solution would be to have cabin crew wear body cams similar to what some police wear so both crew and passengers could be held accountable.

Lukacs said Tambour-Zoe and anyone else who might find themselves in her situation should not expect any help under the new Air Passenger Protection Regulations introduced this summer.

He said the rules are written so that compensation is only available if you're denied a flight based on overbooking, not if you're denied flight for "safety" concerns.

"The government … is calling it refusal of transport, and that kind of falls outside of this umbrella of protection."

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