Now Air Canada takes flak in wake of United Airlines overbooking scandal

It bumped a 10-year-old boy, forcing his family into an impromptu road trip to get on a flight, while UA is again facing criticism, this time for kicking a couple en route to their wedding off a plane. But will any of these stories change industry practices? It's doubtful.  

James Moore
Chief Business Commentator
Tuesday 18 April 2017 13:49
Air Canada: Bumped a ten-year-old from one of its flights
Air Canada: Bumped a ten-year-old from one of its flights

Week two of the United Airlines overbooking flights scandal and the PR snafus just keep on coming.

The latest concerns a couple who were booted from their Houston to Costa Rica flight en route to their wedding.

They say they found a man sleeping in their allocated seats so found alternatives on a half empty plane. Because those seats were in an area intended for “economy plus” passengers, they got booted. Boo, hiss!

But, but, but says the airline. They repeatedly tried to sit in the wrong seats (on a half empty plane) and that’s why a marshall kicked them off the flight.

Who to believe? Does it even matter? Even if United is technically correct (the best kind of correct in the airline industry), its actions were tone deaf at a time when the airline is being judged the world’s worst.

I know, I know, they didn’t pay for the “plus” seats. But hey, who cares. Half empty plane. Couple getting married. Turn a blind eye! Ask the other economy plus passengers if they mind (they might not, getting married etc) if the two sit there if you really want to. Even better, send a half bottle of fizz up from galley!

This is what’s called PR.

Suffice to say, the pair were subsequently booked on an alternative flight.

But at least United's embattled CEO Oscar Munoz can console himself with the fact that he isn’t alone in the firing line.

You know how Canada is often portrayed as America’s more civilised neighbour to the north? The place that gave the world Justin Trudeau as opposed to Donald Trump?

That doesn’t appear to extend to its national carrier, Air Canada, which booted a 10-year-old boy from a flight his family had been due to take from Prince Edward Island to Costa Rica for a holiday.

A sunny overseas vacation turned into a road trip around the family's home country, as they went from airport to airport trying to secure a flight the four of them could all travel on. Apparently they’ve been offered “generous compensation”. Well that's a relief.

There will doubtless be more of these coming to light over the next few days. Because the initial incident that sparked the furore - in which a Vietnamese doctor was dragged from an overbooked United plane by security staff and seriously injured in the process - became a cause célèbre, bad airline stories are now getting international attention. Stories that, in the past, might only have merited local coverage, if any.

All the publicity has cast airline industry practices in a very unflattering light. But what happens when media’s lights move on to the next big story? What happens when such incidents are no longer “news”? Will anything actually change?

United has promised to reform its procedures. I’d imagine Air Canada will make some noise about doing the same when it “understands what went wrong” (clue, someone should have engaged their brain).

EasyJet, which bumped a British couple from a flight just 24 hours after the United fiasco, promised to provide “additional training to our contact centre agents to make sure future customers are not put through a similar experience”.

Sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

You know what? As my daughter sometimes says after an argument with her brother: “Sorry doesn’t fix it.” Certainly not in some of these cases (although money will help).

There has been a lot of impassioned debate about them, and the way airline industry operates in recent days. United, al least, will probably lose some customers in the short term. It might even take improving its customer proposition seriously.

However, when it comes to the more general problem of flying being a thoroughly miserable experience for anyone other than executives with employers willing to pay for business class and above? I doubt any of this will change that. And even business class passengers aren’t always immune, as follow up stories on United have demonstrated.

The unfortunate fact is that airlines know if they can just weather the current storm they will be able to resume normal “service”.

That’s the real scandal.

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