Longtime friends Esther Sinanan and Sheila Young thought they were about to take off on an expensive European vacation when they arrived at Toronto's Pearson International Airport last week.
But their trip ended abruptly at the check-in counter with the news that the flight was overbooked, one of them was on standby and the other wasn't even on the flight list.
The airline said it wasn't an issue of overbooking, it was due to a miscommunication between the various computer reservation systems used by airlines and travel agencies.
The two women booked a 16-day package tour of Spain, Portugal and Morocco through a Flight Centre location at Bramalea City Centre in Brampton, Ont., a few months ago.
The total cost of the trip was more than $4,000 each and was supposed to be Sinanan's milestone 50th birthday gift. She booked time off from the two hospitals where she works part-time — she doesn't receive paid vacation time — to take the holiday.
"I didn't get to do it last year so I thought I'd plan it for this year, and I'm like, 'I'm going on this trip, I want to do this for myself, it's my birthday,'" Sinanan told CBC Toronto.
"Sheila made the decision all by herself to come and she wanted to be on the same flight with me so she ended up paying ... $750 more for her ticket because she didn't want us to be separated."
This week, a video showing a man being dragged off a United Airlines flight prompted the federal government to announce it will introduce legislation about bumping rules as part of a proposed air passenger bill of rights.
When the two arrived at Pearson airport on Friday, April 7, they went to the Lufthansa desk to check in, only to be informed that not only had the flight been changed from Lufthansa to Air Canada, but Young had been put on standby and Sinanan was not on the flight list at all.
Air Canada said this was what is called a "codeshare flight," a very common practice where one carrier, in this case Lufthansa, sells tickets under its name but the flight is actually operated by a partner airline, in this case Air Canada.
The women said they received little help from airline employees, so they called the Flight Centre from the airport, but were eventually told by the agent to go home and they would try to resolve it by Monday.
Sinanan said the most frustrating part was the lack of communication.
"There's only so much the agent is going to do. We are at their mercy because all you're hearing is, 'We're waiting for this one to call, we're waiting for that one to call. It's going to be 20 minutes, it's going to be half an hour,' and nothing."
Vacation booked months in advance
It was late December when Sinanan went to the Flight Centre office and booked the tour. The agent informed her there were only six seats left at the time.
Young then called the same Flight Centre location two weeks later and booked the exact same trip. Both women said they received full documentation from the travel agency as well as the tour company, Cosmos Tours, which confirmed the departure package, flight itinerary, and flight number.
Air Canada investigating
"The bookings for these customers did not appear in our system so the airport agents had no record to board them. We are investigating the technical cause," Air Canada told CBC Toronto Wednesday in an email.
Stephanie Bishop, who works with Globus, the parent company of Cosmos Tours, said the airlines in general usually do more in terms of customer service and accommodation.
Communication between airlines
"Communication from one airline to the next airline appears to have been the source of this particular situation," said Bishop. Air Canada usually has "a really good customer service counter," she added.
Bishop said pointing the finger won't solve the problem.
"The reality is we all rely on technology. I think that sometimes we're so dependent on it ... I think technology, that's what appears to have happened here."
Sinanan and Young were informed by Globus that they would both receive refunds for their flights and tour packages.
Young said they're following up with Air Canada to see if they can get further compensation for stress and loss of income due to time booked off work.
And she won't be attempting to travel outside of the country anytime soon.
"Keep me in Ontario and this trip, maybe, was not meant to happen. Give me my money back and, yeah, that's the way I feel about it."
While Sinanan plans to travel again eventually, she said the experience has left a bad taste in her mouth.
"I want my hard-earned money back. That's all. At the end of the day, I want my money back."