Passengers stuck on sweltering plane in Jamaica denied compensation by WestJet
WestJet has declined to provide compensation to passengers who were stuck in a sweltering airplane cabin in Jamaica last month, claiming the flight was cancelled because of "a security-related incident" outside the airline's control.
That's a marked departure from what WestJet initially told CTV News Vancouver about the cancellation, when it blamed the lack of air conditioning in the cabin on a "mechanical issue" and said the flight was offloaded because of how long it was taking to fix.
The airline now says the situation evolved over time, and that security was the main reason the flight was cancelled. Still, an air passenger rights expert believes WestJet should be on the hook for thousands of dollars in compensation.
On Nov. 3, WestJet flight WS2703 from Montego Bay to Toronto was cancelled. Boarding had been completed, but the air conditioning in the cabin wasn't turning on.
Grace Hill was one of the people on board. She was on her way back to Vancouver after attending her mother's destination wedding.
Last month, Hill told CTV News passengers "band(ed) together" to demand the plane return to the gate, because they were concerned the onboard temperature was getting dangerously high.
Hill alleges that the flight crew initially told passengers returning to the gate would mean further delays, and was reluctant to do so.
"We're like, 'We don't care,'" Hill recalled. "We need to save these people's lives. There's seniors fainting, there's children drenched in sweat."
Lisa Lossner was also on the plane, hoping to get back to Toronto after a vacation with a friend. On Tuesday, she explained that she got up and made her way to the back of the plane because she was feeling "really, really faint" in the heat.
"I wish I had a thermostat (to tell how hot it was)," she said. "It was horrible. Absolutely horrible."
Hill estimated that passengers were stuck on the plane for 90 minutes, while Lossner put it at two hours. Both women are part of a WhatsApp group of passengers from the flight, who have been exchanging information and consoling each other since the experience.
WHAT WAS THE SECURITY ISSUE?
When CTV News first asked WestJet about the incident, the airline made no mention of a security concern.
"WestJet flight WS2703 on Nov. 3 experienced a mechanical issue that resulted in the aircraft requiring an air start to assist in cooling the cabin prior to departure," the airline said in a statement last month.
"Unfortunately, due to high temperatures and the timing involved in completing the required maintenance, the decision was made to offload the plane and the flight was subsequently cancelled. Safety is our top priority and we sincerely apologize to our guests for the disruption and any inconvenience this may have caused."
That explanation roughly matches what Hill and Lossner recall being told as the incident was unfolding, though both women criticized the flight crew for what they saw as insufficient communication about the situation.
After making it back to Canada, both Hill and Lossner contacted WestJet to request compensation under Canada's Air Passenger Protection Regulations.
According to those rules, passengers who experience a delay of more than nine hours with a major airline for a reason within that airline's control are entitled to $1,000 in compensation, in addition to the basic standards of treatment that apply during delays.
This monetary award is only available if the delay was within the airline's control, however. WestJet's responses to both women – and to other people in the WhatsApp group – assert that the delay was not in its control.
"Upon review of your reservation, we are unable to approve your claim for compensation as the most significant reason for your flight interruption was due to a security-related incident," the airline said in responses to Hill and Lossner.
Lossner said she was confused by this response, and sought clarification from the airline in a follow-up email.
"I responded and said, 'That doesn't make any sense. Can you explain this to me?'" she said. "They wrote back and said, 'We've re-evaluated, and our original decision stands.' And that's pretty much where I ended it. There's no point, you know, flogging a dead horse."
When asked for an explanation, WestJet provided the following response, which still did not elaborate on the nature of the security incident:
"While in our original correspondence, we described and explained the initial issue that resulted in the high temperature and circumstance onboard, that does not always correlate to the reason which is coded to a cancellation for the purposes of APPR, as the reasons for a disruption can, and often will, evolve given the complex nature of any disruption."
After a follow-up inquiry, the airline provided a little bit more information. Though the crew had "the desire to operate with a delay," WestJet said, the "compounding and complex escalation of the incident" made this impossible.
"The crew made the difficult decision to cancel the flight in its entirety for the security and the overall safety of all guests and crew out of concern for unruly behaviour," the company said.
When Hill heard this explanation, she was incredulous.
"It doesn't make sense," she said. "Why aren't they just telling us, like, 'You guys were unruly'? You know, it seems like they know that they're wrong, so they don't want to tell us."
"I don't understand how you can say that's security related when people were just looking out for each other," Lossner said. "You can't keep a dog in a hot car. You can get, you know, charged for something like that. But it's OK to keep 170 people for, I'm going to say almost two hours, in a plane, and not expect them to get frustrated or vocal? I just can't wrap my head around that."
PASSENGER RIGHTS EXPERT WEIGHS IN
Air passenger rights expert Gábor Lukács told CTV News it's in WestJet's interest to claim that the incident in Montego Bay was outside its control, even though – in his opinion – this is a case where the airline was clearly at fault.
"What I understand happened is that there was some issue with the temperature in the cabin and people got upset about it because of how it was mishandled by the airline," Lukács said.
Even if the initial mechanical issue was outside WestJet's control, Lukács said, the security concern about "unruly behaviour" suggests that the flight crew failed to properly de-escalate the situation. He noted that flight attendants are typically trained in conflict de-escalation.
"How you interact with passengers, how you handle the conflict, that is really a question of training and something that the airline has full control over," he said.
Lukács, who holds a PhD, is the president of Air Passenger Rights, a non-profit organization he founded to educate Canadian air travellers about their rights and advocate for better protection of those rights.
His advice to the members of the WhatsApp group who bonded over their experience trying to leave Jamaica is to take WestJet to small claims court or, in British Columbia, the Civil Resolution Tribunal.
"In those settings, the airline would have to present evidence and an impartial judge will have to look at the facts and decide whether compensation is or isn't owed," Lukács said.
He also lamented that the APPR system, as it's currently set up, makes small claims courts the best option for passengers seeking compensation.
Lukács said it's economically advantageous for airlines to claim delays and cancellations are out of their control, even if they aren't, because the fines levied against airlines by the Canadian Transportation Agency are often lower than the compensation they would've had to pay in the first place.
"It is far more profitable for an airline to break the law and not pay passengers compensation owed than to actually be a law-abiding corporate citizen," he said.
Lossner said she's planning to file a complaint to the CTA about her experience, but hasn't done so yet. She said she's not sure it's worth the time or effort to pursue a court case against WestJet over this issue.
Hill said some in the WhatsApp group have discussed launching a group legal proceeding, but there are no concrete plans yet.
She described the push for compensation as "a big, scary process" that she wishes the airline would've made easier.
"It's just really disappointing that they couldn't just offer their customers what we're owed instead of having to kind of cut corners and try to screw us over," Hill said.
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