Air Canada staff threatened to call the police, passengers said, as a Calgary-Yellowknife flight reached the rare point of asking people who had already boarded the aircraft to leave.
On March 24, Air Canada asked nine people to get off flight 8457. Shortly after boarding, passengers said, a flight attendant announced nine volunteers were needed to leave the aircraft – in exchange for $200 compensation vouchers – as the plane was over its weight limit.
Nobody volunteered, so employees selected passengers at random.
“Most people required to deboard got off voluntarily,” said Tú Pham, a passenger on the flight whose spouse and 13-year-old were asked to get off the plane, “but there was one family of Asian tourists that insisted on getting more information before getting off.
“They mainly wanted to know when they would get to Yellowknife. The dad was trying to explain he was booked on a non-refundable tour and was flying on to the Yukon afterward, and that it was going to cause significant problems for him and his family.”
Pham says the airline refused to provide any more information and told the passenger the issue could be discussed after he left the plane. There appeared to be a language barrier, Pham said, which made the situation more challenging. The standoff escalated, he said, to an Air Canada employee threatening to call the police.
“The threat was clear: if you don’t get off the plane, we’re going to have your family forcibly removed by the police,” said Pham. “They didn’t put it that way, but that was the clear threat.”
According to Pham and another passenger, the man held his ground, growing increasingly upset. His daughter begged him to get off the plane.
“They repeated the threat of calling the police. The man’s young child got very scared… as if she was worried that the police were going to come arrest her dad,” said Pham.
At this point, Air Canada employees asked everyone to get off the plane. Pham was reunited with his family, but his daughter was in tears.
“She had overheard airline staff saying it might be days before they could get people home,” he said. “The Asian man that was part of the family was distraught as well. He was speaking with some of the other passengers trying to find someone who could advocate for him because of the language barrier.”
Section 15 of the Air Passenger Protection Regulations states passengers can only be asked to leave an aircraft after boarding if their safety is at risk.
An Air Canada spokesperson said that was the case for flight 8457.
“The weight and balance requirements for this flight in question was revised after additional weather and operational considerations were received after boarding had commenced, necessitating a limit on the passengers carried,” the spokesperson, who did not provide their name, wrote from an Air Canada email address.
“Suffice to say, weight and balance limits are a safety issue that will not be compromised.”
The spokesperson said all nine passengers were booked on another flight the following day.
“The airline will likely argue that the ‘weight issue’ was a safety issue. I am inclined to disagree,” said Gabor Lukacs, president, founder and coordinator of Air Passenger Rights, a non-profit advocacy group.
“Providing an aircraft that can safely transport the passengers and their baggage is the airline’s responsibility. They know the aircraft’s capacity, they know the passengers’ weight and the weight of the baggage, and they know the distance between the cities.
“Fuel needed on board may vary depending on the weather and the route, but that is also something calculable. If the airline cannot operate a full flight on a route, it should either get a bigger aircraft or not sell all seats.”
Lukacs stated the Air Passenger Protection Regulations require that airlines avoid separating families where possible. He advised the waylaid passengers of flight 8457 to seek compensation, as airlines are legally required to pay $900 to passengers denied boarding for a delay of less than six hours, $1,800 for a delay of six to nine hours, and $2,400 for nine hours or more.
Lukacs advised passengers who aren’t immediately refunded by the airline to head to small claims court instead of the Canadian Transportation Agency, citing this article.
Pham said he was most disturbed not by a lack of compensation but by the threats he described being directed at a distressed young family, and what he said was a lack of dignity in the way they were treated.
“My biggest concern was how quickly they resorted to calling the police,” he told Cabin Radio.
“This is a non-violent tourist who paid for his ticket and just wanted to get to his destination. He was only asking for more information.
“There was a significant lack of transparency here. They had numerous ways to diffuse this. It’s unfortunate.”