An advertising campaign by a company that helps travelers get compensation for problems with airlines is being grounded by the people running the Vancouver International Airport.

And the non-profit organization’s vice-president has decided that answering questions about the move won’t fly either.

YVR’s VP of Commercial Development, Scott Norris, claimed that allowing the ads, by company Flight Claim, would have broken the airport’s advertising guidelines. But in an interview, he couldn’t say exactly how.

“Our advertising guidelines are about respecting all of the airport’s users. This advertising didn’t do that,” Norris told CTV News.

When asked which users, Norris said, “YVR has been voted the best airport in North America and that’s a vote of confidence from our passengers.”

When asked what part of the ad failed the meet the standards, Norris answered, “We’re interested in creating a great passenger experience at the airport.”

And when asked whether a “great experience” included getting legally entitled compensation for getting bumped or delayed, Norris fell silent.

At that point, airport staff shut down the interview.

The ads offer to help a passenger receive up to $1,800 if their international flights are late, overbooked, or cancelled in some circumstances. Flight Claim takes a cut of the money paid out.

Compensation is due to come to Canadian flights via the Canadian government’s new Passenger Bill of Rights, which was launched in part as a reaction to a disturbing incident where a doctor was dragged off an overbooked flight in Chicago last year.  

“People need to be aware there is compensation available and they need to ask for it,” said Flight Claim CEO Jacob Charbonneau. “Obviously we would like to be on the spot at the airport because that’s where we reach the traveler.”

In April, the Flight Claim ads were initially slated to run in the international arrivals area billboards for $25,000, before the airport management stepped in, saying “the description of your business is outside of the Airport Authority’s objectives in its advertising portfolio.”

Charbonneau says he’s not been able to get YVR to explain what that means.

“We asked what those principles were. We were unable to get an answer to that,” he said. “Why don’t they want passengers to know about their rights?”

It was an unusual experience at YVR, where the Airport Authority foundational documents prize transparency and accountability as part of the mission of the airport.

“What is accountability?” says the Vancouver Airport Authority Board Manual. “Accountability means being able to explain or account for one’s conduct and actions.”

"The public can ask and the Authority must answer: does the Authority manage and operate the Vancouver International Airport in a safe and efficient manner for the general benefit of the public?” the document says

Some passengers suspect that the airport is acting for the general benefit of its best customers – the airlines. Promoting this compensation could cut into an airline’s bottom line, observed passenger Cathryn Fortier, en route to Ottawa.

“It’s going to cost them and they want to keep people in the dark,” Fortier said.

Another passenger, Jeff Dove, said good customer service means providing a customer with information.

“It frustrates everybody. We just want to be happy. Keep us in the loop and we’ll be happy,” he said.

CTV News showed a video of the interview with Norris to Peak Communicators’ Alyn Edwards, who provides media training to a variety of clients.

“This is an inexplicable response from this spokesperson from the airport,” Edwards said. “This is the kind of thing I show in media training: how not to respond.”

Rather than answer the question, the airport now faces larger questions about its commitment to its fundamental practices, he said.

“It’s a credibility issue. Why will they not answer a simple question? To dance around and repeat key messages that don’t address the question – it makes them look bad.

“My comment is, ‘What are they afraid of?’ If their airline partners treat customers fairly when they’re bumped, what are they afraid of?” Edwards said.

In a follow-up e-mail, the airport’s manager of communications highlighted a guideline: “Advertising creative should be formulated and designed to be suitable for an airport setting and audience and respect all age groups, genders, cultures, business partners, government agencies, and adhere to provincial, municipal and Canadian laws. Some examples of content we do not approve includes anything that is political or religious in nature.” He didn’t explain how the ad broke the guidelines.

In 2009, the Canadian Supreme Court decided that the Lower Mainland’s public transit authority, Translink, had to put up controversial political ads because, while it is an independent agency, it provides a government service and is answerable to governments and must uphold the Canadian Charter right of freedom of speech. 

YVR was run by Transport Canada, but was devolved to a non-profit in 1992. However the first of Transport Canada’s goals in the change was to “improve accountability relative to the federal operation of airports,” its board manual says.

The YVR board consists of people appointed from the community and through government agencies including the City of Richmond, the City of Vancouver, the Government of Canada, and Metro Vancouver.

That’s enough for Flight Claim to consider following through on a lawsuit that the airport is violating the company’s rights of freedom of speech in a similar way, said Charbonneau.

“We’re going to look at it. There’s nothing to lose for us,” said Charbonneau.

It’s not the first airport Charbonneau’s ads have been rejected from, just the first where the airport couldn’t explain itself.

“Last year we were advertising in Montreal. After four days our campaign got shut down from pressure from the airlines,” he said.