Saturday, May 03, 2014

Porter Airlines: brace for turbulence

The Telegram> Opinion> Columnists 
Randy Simms 
Published on May 03, 2014  

The stranded passengers from last Sunday’s Porter Airlines flight should initiate a class-action lawsuit and take the company to court.

The entire comedy of errors and corporate disregard for the people involved should be addressed by the justice system.

I can’t help but think that a good judge, hearing their story of desertion, would side with the passengers and award them compensation.

Consider what happened here: on April 27, 74 passengers were on a flight from Halifax to St. John’s. Before they arrived, it was reported that fog — a condition we’re all familiar with — had moved in and the plane couldn’t land in the capital city.

Porter diverted the aircraft to Stephenville and left passengers there to fend for themselves. According to Porter, the weary travellers were offered two options: stay aboard and head back to Halifax, or make their own way home from the west coast.

If they went back to Halifax Porter would book them on another flight, but perhaps not until May 2. That meant a week in Nova Scotia waiting, or else paying money to another airline to get home.

It wasn’t much of a choice.

Sixty-three people left the aircraft and had to make their own arrangements to get back to St. John’s.

According to passenger reports there were no Porter staff available to them when they landed, other than the crew, and there were no airport personnel on hand to retrieve their luggage. The pilot  had to go into the cargo bay with a flashlight to pull out suitcases for those leaving the aircraft.

The entire episode sounds like bad fiction. No image-conscious company, especially one in as competitive a field as aviation, can afford this kind of bad publicity. Porter has taken a lot of heat over this, and rightly so. These passengers ended up paying a lot of extra money to get to their destination, and that’s not fair.

Every passenger on that plane had a contract with the airline, and it’s pretty simple: I pay the agreed upon price and you commit to get me to my destination. If you fail to do so, it means you did not honour the contract.

At the very least I should get my money back.

Airlines are quick to say that weather issues are out of their hands so you can’t blame them if they can’t get you to your destination. That means the onus is on the customer to decide whether they should fly or not because of impending bad weather, and the company is off the hook. Can you imagine telling an airline you’ve decided not to fly and the company refunding your fare?

Porter failed in its duty to these customers and didn’t make an effort to honour their contracts. Had they kept the aircraft in Stephenville to wait for better weather in St. John’s, no one would have been able to argue that they abandoned their customers.

Dumping them and flying off to maintain someone else’s schedule looks as bad as it sounds. 

What the passengers need is an aggressive young lawyer to review  the fine print associated with purchasing an airline ticket.

There must be a means of getting these airline executives before a judge — one who wants to help write some new laws.

It’s a sad situation, because Porter is one airline that’s worked hard to build a solid reputation for good customer service. That reputation took a hit this week.

The bottom line? You do not abandon your passengers, even if the problem is caused by bad weather. If, at some point, you must leave them, then compensate them for the inconvenience.

For several years there’s been a movement to have a passenger bill of rights passed in Parliament to protect airline travellers.

The Porter incident shows just how much it’s needed.