A Newfoundland couple’s story of being stranded at an airport in Portugal after Air Canada suddenly suspended their tickets home has emerged as the latest chapter in the spiralling public relations crisis facing airlines.
As legislation to create a new passenger bill of rights was introduced in Ottawa on Tuesday, Randell Earle described arriving at the Lisbon airport with his wife, Claudia, for their return flight to St. John’s in late March.
“When we arrived they said ‘Sorry, Air Canada has suspended your ticket,”‘ he said in an interview from his home in Topsail, a community in Conception Bay South. “They told us to go to the customer service desk, but then we were told we needed to call Air Canada directly.”
While frantically feeding euros into a pay phone, Earle said he “went round the mulberry bush three times” between Air Canada on the phone and airport agents until the couple missed their Air Canada Star Alliance flight, operated by Portuguese airline TAP Portugal.
“My wife looked at me at one point and said, ‘Your face is beet red, you look like you’re going to have a stroke,”‘ the 67 year-old retired lawyer said.
The seniors were forced to stay overnight in a hotel and book one-way flights home at nearly three times the cost of their entire round-trip fare to Lisbon.
The new flights to St. John’s cost the couple $6,090, whereas they had originally purchased two round-trip tickets for about $2,300, he said.
Upon his return to Newfoundland, Earle sent an email to Air Canada explaining the situation. He said it took the airline nearly a month to respond.
While Air Canada apologized to Earle for the “inconvenience,” it said the suspension of their tickets was “a necessary fraud prevention technique to protect our passengers, credit card holders and Air Canada.”
Noting an increase in fraudulent activity due to the “ability to purchase products and/or services using credit cards over the telephone or the Internet,” the email said Air Canada has created a “fraud prevention team” that uses “tools” to monitor online bookings.
“When the results from these tools are inconclusive, the fraud prevention team will request that the airport agent confirms the details of the purchased ticket,” the email said, noting that the airline “cannot guarantee that this will not happen again.”
Earle called the email “gobbledygook.”
He said no one at the airport asked to see his credit card or questioned his identity on the first leg of his journey out of St. John’s, where both he and his wife presented passports before boarding the plane.
Ironically, Earle said he used the same credit card to book the last-minute one-way tickets home — with Air Canada — that he used to make the initial booking, with no issues.
Air Canada’s response also skirted the question of compensation, he said.
Earle launched a lawsuit in small-claims court seeking compensation for his out-of-pocket costs, but he said Air Canada only reimbursed his out-of-pocket costs after the CBC called the airline for comment on the story.
“It’s not about good faith dealings with customers,” Earle said. “It’s about operating the airline at the lowest possible cost.”
Earle said he has since learned that because the flight originated in Europe, Air Canada is supposed to offer compensation above out-of-pocket costs.
However, the airline has told him that because that request wasn’t in the initial statement of claim, they will not be offering him any added compensation, he said.
Air Canada spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur said the airline is unable to comment on the specific details of a matter as it is still before the courts, but noted credit card fraud is a growing problem.
“Credit card fraud costs everyone and is a growing problem that online retailers and law enforcement are trying to tackle,” she said in an email. “Companies with web sales, not just airlines, have security measures to prevent online fraud.
“To maintain the effectiveness of these measures, you will understand that we are not at liberty to discuss the details. However, we understand it is unsettling when these measures disrupt travel.”
Earle said, in his experience, people are afraid of the costs of going through legal proceedings.
“But how many seniors can afford to put $6,000 on a credit card at 19.99 per cent interest and not be compensated?” he said.
Earle said he believes Air Canada has adopted a “tough-it-out approach with customers.”
“They want to wait and see what happens, to see if they can get out of paying compensation,” he said.