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How an International Airline Can Ruin a Vacation

March 18, 2014

Last month, a good friend of mine had the rug pulled right out from under her carefully planned ‘sunshine destination’ vacation by Canada’s national airline, Air Canada.  What is truly shocking about her story is that its probably not unique. If you do ANY travelling by air (with this particular airline, or others) you might want to double check with your travel agent (or the airline directly) regarding their policies on advance seat selection, flight ‘guarantees’, over-booking, ‘standby’ status, and compensation for ruined holidays. Here, in her own words, is what happened to my friend:

On Family Day weekend (February 2014), my husband and I and two friends had our entire week-long vacation ruined because Air Canada had overbooked our flight to Aruba, and we were turned away at the boarding gate.

We had done everything we were supposed to do:  we bought our tickets from a travel agent in September, printed our boarding passes the day before leaving, arrived at the airport three hours in advance.  But when we tried to select our seats, we were told we’d been put on standby and had to speak to an agent at the gate.  This was just the beginning of our nightmare . . .

There were a total of eight passengers waiting at the gate to speak to an agent.  We learned that the man behind us in line had booked his three tickets ‘last minute’ in January, and had printed his boarding passes later in the day than we had.  However, when the agent arrived, she gave “Mr. January” his seats and left us waiting.  When I put up a fuss and asked why, the agent said her records showed that we had checked in last. This was absolutely not true.

To make matters worse, while we were anxiously waiting to see if we were going to be able to board the plane, the agent repeated her final boarding call several times in an attempt to locate eight or ten people who hadn’t yet checked in – yet she still would not allow us to board the plane.  Fifteen minutes later, those passengers sauntered over to the gate and were allowed to board, and we were told the plane was full.

Air Canada did offer to find us another flight. However, the next day’s flight to Aruba was already overbooked by seven, and we were told it was highly unlikely that we would get seats on it (despite having already been bumped once).  We were offered a different flight – leaving the next day – to Bogota, Colombia, with a nine-hour layover; however, we were advised that there was no seat guarantee on the connecting flight to Aruba.  We could be stranded in Bogota – clearly this was not an option.

We spent the entire day at the airport, ever hopeful that somehow we could manage to get to Aruba (where we had a timeshare booked and waiting).  Unfortunately, it never happened.  To add insult to injury, our luggage had made it onto the plane and was en route to Aruba, which meant we couldn’t go anywhere else.  Our vacation was over before it had even begun.

Air Canada refunded the price of our tickets and compensated us for being ‘bumped’ (as required under Canadian Transportation Agency law – not out of the ‘goodness of their hearts’); however, they claim they are not liable for any additional repayment costs with respect to our spoiled vacation (including lost time, pre-paid accommodations, etc.).  They, still, however, continue to severely overbook flights, including those to ‘sun destinations’ where it is highly unlikely travellers will simply not turn up. How can this be seen as an acceptable practice?

According to one Customer Service representative I spoke to at Air Canada, we could have avoided this ‘problem’ if we had booked our seats (at an additional cost) when we originally purchased our tickets. Apparently, paying for a flight doesn’t necessarily get you a seat on the plane! Who knew?

Addendum: In one of those weird coincidences that happen when you least expect them, CBC’s Marketplace (a consumer-advocacy show) aired a show about these kinds of problems with the airlines on Friday (March 21); you can watch it at:

  1. January 15, 2015 11:44 am

    Air Canada is the worst. My 14 year old disabled son and I just returned from Ixtapa ,Mexico . The vacation was doomed from the start and completely Air Canada’s fault. I cannot get in touch with a real person there after over a week of calling on the phone. I can only send an email and wait for a response.

    Clearly in our case we were scammed by Air Canada. Our vacation was nothing like what was advertised. Our flight was delayed 5 hours for no good reason and we were not compensated. I upgraded our seats only to find they did not recline and the entertainment units did not function on our 5.5 hour flight. The plane was filthy with gum stuck under the arm of my seat!

    Our hotel had no reservation for us and we were almost left at the airport upon arrival. We were shuffled from hotel to hotel and room to room. The so called 4 star resort was something out of a horror flick…everything from the pool to the room to the restaurants was filthy. I got very sick from the mold in the air conditioning as there were no ceiling fans. I wasted tons of money on calls from Mexico to Air Canada.
    I don’t understand why the travel industry is not better regulated in Canada. Something needs to be done and now!

    • January 15, 2015 1:06 pm

      I guess when you have a near-monopoly (like Air Canada) you can get away with just about anything. It shouldn’t be that way, I agree, but no one seems to be doing anything about it.

  2. March 19, 2014 1:02 am

    This is ludicrous. I hope she gets satisfaction but how do you repay for that level of stress?

    • March 19, 2014 10:34 am

      I don’t think she’ll ever quite ‘recover’ from the stress and disappointment, but she’s still fighting it with Air Canada. I think far too many people ‘accept’ it and shrug their shoulders and say ‘Well, I can’t do anything about it’ (rather than fight) so the airlines just keep doing it. When/if she (ever) gets ‘satisfaction’, I’ll post an update. In the meantime, check YOUR seat guarantee for your trip to China with your travel agent (just in case!)

  3. March 18, 2014 8:59 pm

    That is a dreadful story. I have heard of this overbooking before, but not have had any experience of it myself. I hope that a very strong letter was sent to Air Canada and that every opportunity is taken to publish the awful story to make others aware.

    • March 18, 2014 10:59 pm

      My friend is still pursuing this but Air Canada isn’t being terribly receptive with respect to her complaints and requests for restitution. I can’t believe their attitude is ‘We gave you our money back, the rest is not our problem’. She’s the kind that won’t give up, though. Still, their holiday was totally ruined and you can’t get that back! She’s trying to spread the word through as many channels as possible.

  4. March 18, 2014 2:04 pm

    I would be seething for a year. Perhaps two years.

    • March 18, 2014 2:16 pm

      She’s still fighting with them over payment for their lost accommodation fees, etc. I would have gone completely ballistic. I can’t even imagine living through something like that. To make matter even worse, when they finally got their luggage back (8 days later), her suitcase was damaged and the insurance company said she couldn’t ‘claim’ the damage because she hadn’t reported it within 7 days (and her husband had to repeatedly to go the airport to try to find the bags because the Air Canada reps were absolutely no help at all – but then, their call center is apparently in India!)

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