Airline passengers who use social media to vent their rage at being stuck on a tarmac for hours or waiting days for their luggage to arrive may get some apologetic words from the company, but are unlikely to recoup any money for their efforts.
That’s because the percentage of Canadians who actually apply to airlines for compensation is in the single digits, something that Jacob Charbonneau hopes to change.
The former airline employee is co-founder and CEO of Flight Claim, a Quebec-based company that has helped passengers reclaim $1.5 million in compensation for flight delays, cancellation, lost baggage and overbooking since starting less than two years ago.
Charbonneau saw the service’s potential after helping a colleague fight an airline over a $900 claim.
“I didn’t find that it was fair that people weren’t able to get the compensation only because they’re not aware of their rights or they’re not aware of how to get that compensation,” he said in an interview.
There is plenty of untapped potential because less than five per cent of Canadian passengers bother to file claims for compensation, Charbonneau said.
With Flight Claim, passengers complete an online form and leave the company to handle the rest.
There’s no fee, but the company gets paid 25 per cent of the award if it is successful.
A similar business model is used by a myriad of competitors that operate abroad under names such as Weclaim, Green Claim, Refund.me, EUclaim and Flightright.
While airlines are getting better at managing their fleet, a five per cent annual growth of passengers is straining airports, airlines and air traffic controllers, resulting in more delays, cancellations, and the odds of getting bumped, according to Henrik Zillmer, founder of AirHelp, which offers a service similar to Flight Claim. It also takes a 25 per cent commission.
Only 15 per cent of global passengers obtain compensation, leaving 85 per cent high and dry, he said.
“It’s very much a secret that the airlines have kept from you that we are now trying to tell all air passengers,” he said from New York City.
The company says it has helped more than 20,000 Canadians who stumbled upon the service even though it only formally launched in Canada last month.
Customers can allow AirHelp to link with their email to automatically monitor if they are entitled to any compensation on flights they have taken.
AirHelp sometimes steps in to sue airlines that reject refund applications knowing most passengers will give up and not attempt to force the situation by filing suit within the three-year expiry period, Zillmer said.
Gabor Lukacs, founder of advocacy group Air Passenger Rights Canada, says he supports efforts to help passengers get the compensation they deserve, but he’s not confident that for-profit companies will bear the expense of helping the more challenging cases that would require litigation.
“Not all companies are the same in the sense that many of them are just looking for the low hanging fruit,” said Lukacs, a mathematician who has gone to court and challenged regulator rulings in the defence of passengers.
While online tools or apps can be useful, Lukacs warns passengers not to rely solely on their opinion.
His group’s website offers free advice and has templates of letters that should be sent to airlines in the case of baggage claims. Its 7,000 members also offer advice based on their own experiences through its Facebook account.
“We work as a community. It’s a non-profit network where we try to give people some guidance on what they’re next steps could be,” he said.
Lukacs is also unconvinced that passengers will get more money from Ottawa’s proposed air passenger bill of rights because the yet-to-be-passed bill will relieve airlines from being obligated to pay compensation for maintenance issues that cause delays.
“The Liberal government’s bill is going to double the amount of money passengers are not going to get.”
Experts suggest that passengers who think they might be eligible for compensation keep documentation on expenses paid, ask for the reason for the flight delay or cancellation in writing, record interactions with airline staff, not accept food vouchers in lieu of claims and not trust advice from airline ground staff who are likely not familiar with the law.
“In Europe, things are much easier,” Lukacs said.
“But in Canada because you may be facing a high level of burden of proof, you should really document things ... as meticulously as you can.”