Man dragged from plane prompts calls in Canada for stronger passenger rights

Why airlines overbook flights and what bumped passengers can do about it

Video of a screaming man being dragged down the aisle of a United Airlines plane is a wake-up call for improved consumer protection, says a Canadian passenger rights advocate.

The video shows the man refusing to leave the plane in Chicago after the airline randomly bumped four passengers from the flight.

He was hauled out of his seat by three security guards and dragged bleeding to the front of the plane.

"I found the scene disturbing, disheartening, shocking," said Gabor Lukacs, a self-styled critic of the airline industry in Canada.

The rights of airline passengers in Canada is a grey area, leaving air travellers vulnerable to abuse, Lukacs said.

"It could have happened in Canada for sure. Overbooking is happening all the time. Airlines are way too police- and security-happy, even with peaceful passengers," Lukacs said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

That United Airlines called police shows how willing airlines are to criminalize disputes with passengers, he said.

There is no bill of rights for airline passengers in Canada and most policies for reimbursement and dispute resolution are established by individual airlines, Lukacs said.

'These are not criminal disputes'

Though United Airlines guidelines indicate that company officials have the right to bump passengers, most Canadian airlines fail to outline whether personnel can forcibly remove passengers from flights.

Flights are routinely oversold and it's not unusual for airlines to offer travel vouchers to encourage people to give up their seats, but the situation should never have escalated to "excessive force," he said. 

"What troubles me is that if you have a dispute with the airline, you have to take it to court. If the airline has an issue with you, apparently they're going to call police.

"That is wrong. The airline should not be allowed to rely on police unless there is actually a criminal activity … these are not criminal disputes."

The federal government says rules around bumping will be included in a new passenger bill of rights to be introduced this spring.

​For Lukacs, industry-wide standards can't come fast enough.

"Here, the airlines set their rules on an airline-by-airline basis and it's subject only to an oversight by the Canadian Transportation Agency," he said. "That regulatory body used to do its job very well until 2013. Since then they have been going downhill.

"The regulatory agency has turned from a watchdog into a lap dog."

Lukacs recommends that passengers who end up in a dispute of any kind with their airline document every detail they can.

"I commend the passengers who took out their cellphones and recorded a video of this," he said.

"In the cases of such incidents, documenting what is happening is the best way to protect yourself and your fellow passengers."