A federal tribunal has ruled that Air Canada's decision to cancel two passengers' tickets because they didn't check in one hour before departure was improper, and has ordered the airline to reimburse the two nearly $1,500 they spent on tickets for another flight.
The Canadian Transportation Agency said the airline's "recommended'' check-in time of 60 minutes before the takeoff of domestic flights was unenforceable, but the 25-minute deadline for being at the boarding gate is a valid requirement.
However, the agency warned yesterday the decision should not give travellers the impression they are not required to respect rules set by individual airlines.
"It's not a benchmark,'' CTA spokesman Jadrino Huot said. "It's not a precedent.
"It could happen in the future that we will have a similar case that will be ruled in favour, but it could happen on the opposite way as well. It's always on a case-by-case basis.''
The CTA reviewed the terms and conditions of Air Canada's tickets and ruled that as long as passengers are at the boarding gate 25 minutes before the scheduled takeoff, the airline has no right to cancel a reservation.
The case involved Craig McIntyre and his sons, Eric and Scott.
The younger McIntyres were booked on a flight from Montreal to Edmonton at 8:55 a.m. on May 17, 2004.
According to documents filed with the CTA, McIntyre dropped off his sons at Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport at 8:10 a.m.
McIntyre told the tribunal he was going to leave them at the airport but then decided to park his car and make sure they got on their plane. When he got inside the terminal, he noticed his sons at a pay phone trying to reach him.
They told their father that Air Canada had refused to permit them to check in because they were too late. McIntyre spent $1,482 to buy tickets on WestJet to get Eric and Scott to Edmonton.
Air Canada argued that information about check-in times is printed on all tickets and is a condition of travel. It indicated "that the recommended check-in time set out in its tariff for flights within Canada is 60 minutes in advance of a flight and that failing to meet this requirement will result in the cancellation of a passenger's reservation.''
The airline also said passengers are required to be at the boarding gate 25 minutes before the scheduled departure.
McIntyre said he bought his tickets online and they did not include time limits for check-in.
When he returned to Edmonton a week after his sons, he said, an Air Canada agent told him the cut-off time was 30 minutes before departure "and less if it is not busy.''
He also said his flight had been held up for passengers who had not cleared security.
In its ruling, the CTA said Air Canada's 60-minute limit is only a recommendation, but travellers are required to abide by the airline's 25-minute check-in deadline.
"As a recommendation is not a requirement, the agency infers from the wording of (Air Canada's ticket provisions) that as long as a passenger has completed check-in more than 25 minutes prior to the scheduled departure of the flight, the carrier does not have the right to cancel that passenger's reservation,'' the CTA said.
"Had Scott and Eric been allowed the opportunity to reach the boarding gate in sufficient time for the 25-minute cut-off, they may have been able to do so.''
Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said the airline is reviewing the ruling.
He said the airline has modified its website to clarify check-in times.
The site now lists "recommended'' and "deadline'' times for all flights.
For all flights within Canada, the "recommended check-in time'' is 60 minutes before departure, while the "check-in deadline'' is 30 minutes. The "boarding gate deadline'' is 20 minutes.
For most international flights, not including the United States, the times are two hours, one hour and 30 minutes respectively. Times for U.S. flights are 90 minutes, 45 minutes and 20 minutes.
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