"Their baggage claim agent said it's very common for bags not to get on a flight out of Kelowna," said customer Lynn-Ann Baumeister. "She said, 'We take bags off the planes every day.'"
Baumeister and her husband Roland's checked bags were removed from a flight in February, as they were waiting for the 93-seat Embraer 190 to depart from Kelowna, B.C., to Toronto.
"We had no idea, because nobody told us what they were doing," said Baumeister.
The couple were later told the bags were excluded to keep the aircraft within legal weight and fuel limits, a situation referred to in the industry as a "bulk-out." They ended up without luggage for days while on vacation in Barbados.
"Lost luggage is a fact of life with air travel, and we appreciate that. But, it's not a fact that the bags were lost. The bags were removed from the plane in Kelowna because the plane was too heavy," said Baumeister.
Air Canada would not disclose how often this happens, but a spokeswoman confirmed it is more common at smaller airports, where the airline now uses smaller aircraft to accommodate more frequent flights.
"Bulk-outs usually happen during peak travel periods, during holiday traffic," said Angela Mah. "With a smaller aircraft comes a smaller baggage hold, and that's just the way it is."
"Oftentimes the decision is made at the very, very last moment, and we do our very best to keep our customers informed — but sometimes it just doesn't happen."
Baumeister said they were never told why their bags were chosen for removal.
"My bags were well within the allotted weight and size. I saw people on that plane with carry-on bags that were bigger than my checked-in bags to Barbados."
The couple said they spent several frustrating early-morning hours trying to track down their luggage in Toronto, before boarding their flight south.
They said baggage agents told them the luggage would follow on subsequent flights. They were given a toll-free number to call to check on the status of their baggage.
"That was a very, exceedingly frustrating experience," said Baumeister.
The toll-free number was for a call centre in India, which Air Canada hired seven years ago, to handle customer calls about lost bags. Baumeister said they made numerous calls from Barbados but got no helpful answers.
"There was a language barrier and we were on hold for extended periods of time," said Baumeister.
"Nobody knew where the bags were. We gave the same information endlessly. The same questions were asked. Where did you start your vacation? Where are your bags? What is your name?"
The couple bought bathing suits and other necessities in Barbados. Lynn-Ann's bag arrived two days after she did, while her husband's bag showed up two days after that.
"We just waited and waited for the bags to arrive," said Baumeister. "After they were removed, then they were lost — so it became kind of a mess."
"My members are put into a unique situation [dealing with irate customers] on a daily basis," said Todd Haverstock, western region chair for the union that represents baggage agents.
"[We] know there are passengers getting on that plane and unfortunately their bags aren't going there."
Haverstock said bulk-outs happen mostly in the smaller centres with smaller aircraft when there is unusual checked baggage.
"Sometimes it's not due to the weight, it would be due to the size. For instance, if we had a big band that would be travelling on an aircraft, the band equipment is not all square boxes or square bags."
Bags are chosen for removal arbitrarily, he said, not because of their size, shape or when they were checked in. However, he said, they try to avoid removing luggage destined for connecting flights.
"A lot of the times when the bulk-out happens or we are told to offload bags or not load bags, it's all last minute," said Haverstock.
"We put a message into the system. The other [airport] stations know before that passenger gets off the plane that their bags are not there."
He said baggage agents would much prefer to handle customer inquiries directly. Often, he said, passengers are told by the call centre in India that their bag is still lost when it has already arrived on a later flight and sitting at its destination.
"The call centres can be very frustrating," he said. "Basically, all they are doing is reading the files on the computer."
Air Canada said it has made several recent improvements, which have significantly reduced the number of bag removals in smaller airports.
"We've actually done a lot of work in the past two years to mitigate bulk-outs. What we do is we will look at our flights and schedule in a larger aircraft whenever possible in order to take the pressure off," said Mah.
The company has apologized to the Baumeisters.
"There's no question that we certainly let our customers down in this particular case and we are disappointed as well. We will certainly take their feedback to help us improve their services," said Mah.
The airline sent the couple a cheque for the equivalent of $100 US for each lost bag, which it said is its maximum compensation.
"Airline tariff regulations … preclude liability for consequential claims such as missed meetings, hotel expenses, cellphone charges, transportation expenses, lost time and enjoyment, hotel costs, inconvenience, etc," reads the letter from Air Canada.
Lynn-Ann Baumeister estimated the whole ordeal cost them over $1,000 in expenses and lost vacation time. She now wants to warn other passengers flying out of small centres to pack as much as possible in carry-on.
"If they had have told us that our bags were going to be removed from the flight, we would have taken out a few key items," she said.
"What bugs me the most is [Air Canada] not telling their customers what they are doing."