Fed-up fliers frustrated by service cuts, horror stories vow to avoid airlines
An airplane prepares to land at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, May 10, 2017 2:06PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, May 11, 2017 6:53AM EDT
TORONTO -- After years of watching service decline and fees rise, avid traveller George Chow didn't need another reason to avoid the airlines.
But a steady stream of horror stories in the news is only cementing his resolve to find other modes of transport whenever possible.
A planned excursion to the Maritimes this fall will almost certainly be by train or car, says the Markham, Ont., resident.
"It's just getting more and more difficult and challenging to get onto a plane," complains Chow, a 55-year-old semi-retired accountant.
Travellers are still stewing over the violent ejection of a United Airlines passenger in April. Cellphone video of a Kentucky doctor being dragged off an overbooked jetliner sparked widespread anger over the way he was treated, and added fuel to years of simmering complaints about general service cuts, cramped seats and soaring surcharges.
What was once the most convenient way to travel has now become fraught with stress and worry, say many Canadians planning their summer getaways.
"I've never gone on a flight and just gone, 'Wow, that was so easy to do with my family,"' says Ontario singer-songwriter Sarah Blackwood, who often can't avoid flying to concert dates.
"If I had the choice and time wasn't an issue, I wouldn't ever fly, it's my least favourite part of the job."
It's especially stressful for families with young kids, says the Walk Off the Earth singer, who made headlines two years ago when she was kicked off a flight operated by United Airlines because her toddler was crying.
She sympathizes anytime she sees a mom struggling to wrangle kids on a flight.
That was the case with an American Airlines scuffle that made headlines last month. A flight attendant was accused of violently grabbing a double-wide stroller from a passenger as she tried to put it in an overhead bin, allegedly hitting her and narrowly missing her baby in the process.
Blackwood implores airlines to be more patient with parents and for airports to offer play areas that can help stave off tantrums and crying fits when it's time to board.
"Travelling with kids is not ever going to be easy but I've been in situations where I've gone up to the check-in desk and they've told me I can't bring my stroller through the gate," says Blackwood, who travels by tour bus whenever possible.
"Imagine -- I was travelling on my own and had to carry one child and then drag the other one."
Air passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs says non-stop complaints about airlines highlight the need for greater consumer protection. But he says the Canadian Transportation Agency has a poor record of backing the consumer when a complaint is filed.
"The Canadian Transportation Agency very often sends away passengers with legitimate complaints and if things do go to a formal compliant then they tend to rule against passengers," says Lukacs, who accuses the agency's leadership of being too easily influenced by the big airlines.
The problem is Canadians don't have much choice when it comes to travel options, and there are really no consequences for transgressions, says the Nova Scotia-based airline critic.
Last fall, Ottawa promised to introduce a bill of rights for air passengers this spring.
A spokesperson for Transport Minister Marc Garneau said it would address bumping rules and establish clear, minimum requirements for compensation when flights are oversold or luggage lost.
Lukacs said that is not good enough, noting the U.S. department of transportation will fine airlines millions of dollars when they are caught mistreating passengers.
"The question is enforcement. What will happen to an airline that, in spite of the law, tells a passenger 'get lost'? Will there be financial consequences?" says Lukacs, who urges passengers to document any disputes and take complaints to small claims court instead of the Canadian Transportation Agency.
The current political climate makes any travel to the U.S. especially fraught for medical student Zahra Sohani, who says she's inclined to avoid crossing the border by air or land as long as President Donald Trump seeks to ban immigrants from some Muslim-majority countries.
The Muslim-Canadian regularly visits friends and family in Orlando, Fla., but fears being interrogated or turned away at the airport.
"When you're the person travelling and being pulled aside every single time it stops feeling like it's random," says Sohani.
Chow says the train is an increasingly attractive option for him.
"Airline service is getting worse and worse. Before it was more comfortable, you're being treated, so you feel a bit special," says Chow.
"I used to love to travel."