The public outcry over the contentious airline practice of overbooking flights has found a new target in Atlantic Canada, where a 10-year-old P.E.I. boy was bumped from an Air Canada flight that was supposed to take his family to a sunny destination during the March break.
The airline apologized to the family Monday after the boy could not be assigned a seat on the flight from Charlottetown to Costa Rica.
Brett Doyle said he booked four tickets for his family last August. A day before their vacation was to begin, Doyle said he tried to check in his family online, but he could not select a seat for his son.
After hours on the phone with Air Canada, Doyle's wife drove to the airport and was told the flight was oversold and their son had been bumped.
"The agent told us that the plane only had 28 seats, but that 34 tickets had been sold," Doyle said. "She said it was very unlikely that six people wouldn't show up for a flight over March break."
The family scrambled to catch a different Air Canada flight out of Moncton to meet the Costa Rica flight in Montreal, but when that flight was cancelled they were forced to drive to Halifax and stay overnight in a hotel.
Air Canada said in an email it has apologized to the Doyle family.
"We are currently following up to understand what went wrong and have apologized to Mr. Doyle and his family as well as offered a very generous compensation to the family for their inconvenience," Air Canada spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur said in an email Monday.
However, Doyle said he reached out to Air Canada several times before and after the family's trip, to no avail.
"It wasn't until the media picked up the story that Air Canada actually contacted us," he said.
Doyle said he was offered a $1,600 voucher, which expires in one year. He negotiated with Air Canada to increase the voucher to $2,500 plus expenses, but it still doesn't cover the cost of tickets for a family of four.
"Without sounding greedy, what I'd really like is to experience the trip we had planned for so many months and this voucher isn't going to do that," he said.
The family's misadventure underscores the airline industry's controversial practice of overselling flights and bumping passengers.
Last week, a United Airlines passenger was dragged off an oversold plane in Chicago after he refused to be bumped from the flight. The violent incident, captured by cellphone cameras and shared through social media, sparked a wave of outrage.
Airline passenger advocate Gabor Lukacs called overbooking "an egregious and deliberate form of breach of contract."
"I would like to see a complete moratorium on bumping passengers involuntarily who are younger than 16," he said in an interview. "Children and other vulnerable passengers shouldn't be allowed to be bumped from flights."
Arthur said families travelling with children under the age of 12 are typically seated together, but she said a "miscommunication" occurred because the airline was not dealing directly with the family.
The airline spokeswoman said the overselling of flights is done using computer algorithms that look at historical data to identify patterns showing where and when customers do not show up. While the airline sells below what the patterns predict, Arthur said there are times when customers must be moved to another flight due to an over-sale.
"Typically, we are able to find volunteers to take a later flight and if not, we will base our decision on other factors, such as families travelling together, whether the customer has onward connections or if they are checked-in and have an assigned seat," she said.
"Such decisions are made before final seats are assigned and customers board the aircraft."
Lukacs said airlines oversell flights to keep profits high and shareholders happy.
"Airlines sell quite a few non-refundable tickets and yet they overbook," he said. "Up until now, people were just putting up with it like suckers. But now people are fed up."