3 missing letters in his name cost man $10K trip after Air Transat and Porter fail to fix ticket
Critic says airlines have duty to correct minor errors on passenger tickets
Doug Lee and his wife, Nancy, had been dreaming for months about a trip to Ireland with their best friends, a couple they'd known for almost 40 years.
The four of them left early for the Halifax airport last August, spirits high while they listened to traditional Irish music in the car.
"We were all singing … and laughing … and just enjoying the morning," said Nancy.
The plan was to fly from Halifax to Toronto and then on to Dublin for an eight-day tour.
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"We were looking forward to something that we had never seen before," said Nancy, adding that the trip was a long overdue honeymoon they never had 50 years earlier. "There were castles to visit, grand feasts and scenic views."
But the gaiety came to an abrupt halt when the group checked in at the Porter Airlines counter.
Doug's airline ticket said "Doug" Lee, but the first name on his passport was three letters longer — it read "Douglas" Lee.
"Because those two [names] did not match, they said, 'No, you can't fly,' " said Doug, who'd rarely been on a plane in his 76 years. "That kind of caught me by surprise."
Under federal law, the name on an airline passenger's ticket must match the name on government-issued identification, such as a passport or driver's licence.
What followed was more than five hours of scrambling, as the clock ticked down to departure and Doug, Nancy and their friends tried desperately to get the problem fixed.
An air passenger rights advocate says he has seen similar situations too often — airlines that don't correct a minor issue, at the passenger's expense.
"An airline can't walk away from a contract by way of a clerical error," said Air Passenger Rights advocacy group president Gábor Lukács. "If you make a typo in your ticket, you have the right to have it corrected."
Lukács wants air travellers to know, as the busy holiday season approaches, that if there's a minor issue with a ticket like this one, he says airlines have a duty to fix it.
"When there is no doubt who the passenger is, there is no doubt that it is a genuine typo, the airline has to reasonably co-operate," he said.
In the end, Doug and Nancy said a tearful goodbye to their friends, who had to get on the plane without them.
As Doug was not allowed to board the plane, his wife stayed behind, too, so they both missed out on a $10,000 trip they'd saved hard to enjoy.
"Seeing them leave was really heartbreaking," said Nancy. "It just seemed so unfair."
The couple eventually made the sad journey back to their home in Souris, P.E.I., about an hour east of Charlottetown.
Flight was a 'codeshare'
The issue, the couple discovered, was the fact that their friend had booked the group's tickets on what is called a codeshare flight — essentially an agreement between airlines to sell seats on each other's flights.
Codeshares are becoming increasingly popular post-pandemic according to aviation experts, as airlines want to fly to more destinations but are suffering staff shortages and airline production is still struggling with supply chain issues.
Although Doug's ticket was purchased through Air Transat, the codeshare flight was operated by Porter Airlines.
While he and his wife pleaded with several Porter agents at the airport, their friends and their friend's daughter spent hours making frantic calls to the travel agency they booked with, and Air Transat agents.
"That almost sounds like a joke," said Lukács. "How many airline employees do you need to fix a name correction?"
At one point, an Air Transat agent on the phone said Doug's name had been corrected in their system — changed from "Doug" to "Douglas."
With that agent on the line, Doug says his friend handed the phone to the Porter agent at the counter, who said she could not see the correction on her screen. Therefore, Doug was still out of luck.
"When two airlines enter into a codeshare agreement, they have to ensure that their systems can talk to each other," said Lukács.
"Having a system that doesn't enable what's necessary means the system is broken."
Porter Airlines' director of communications, Brad Cicero, wrote in an email to Go Public that Air Transat was responsible to facilitate any corrections, as it "owns the ticket."
According to Cicero, the two systems are designed to "share specific information and fields relevant to bookings." It is not clear why the Porter agent was unable to see Air Transat's name correction on a screen.
In an email to Go Public, Bernard Côté, director of communications for Air Transat, wrote that both Air Transat and Porter are "in the process of updating procedures" so that passenger names can be updated between the two airlines.
He did not reply when asked why a clear system of communication between the two airlines was not in place before selling tickets in a codeshare arrangement.
"You really have to question how come these airlines held out to the public that they are a codeshare and able to handle passengers," said Lukács, "when their systems are so disjointed that something as simple as a name correction could not be done."
Booking made through FlightHub
In an email to Go Public, Air Transat pointed a finger at the online booking travel agent, FlightHub.
"In this particular case, the travel agency should have made the correction … before the departure date and reissued the ticket to Mr. Lee and his wife," wrote Côté.
The Lees say they had no idea there was a problem until they tried to check in.
When reached on the phone at the airport, a customer service rep for FlightHub said it was too close to the flight's departure to correct the name on the ticket. The travel agency repeated this answer to Go Public.
Lukács says it's unfortunate FlightHub couldn't make the fix, but that with hours before departure, it was up to the airlines involved to solve the problem.
"Airlines should do everything in their power to ensure that they and the passenger jointly can meet the rules," he said.
'Egregious customer service'
At one point, Nancy says Doug mentioned to the Porter agent that he'd worked as an RCMP officer for over 30 years before he retired. The agent then asked if Doug had a government paycheque with him, said Nancy.
"Who carries around a paycheque?" she said. "Even if Doug wasn't retired."
The couple also offered to pay for another seat for Doug on the plane, using his full first name, in order to salvage their trip.
"She said 'There's no empty seats, it's full up,' " said Nancy. "I said, 'There's two empty seats! Our empty seats."
That didn't work, either. Porter told Go Public it "doesn't have the ability to cancel a booking made … for another airline."
The couple's frustrations are echoed by customer retention specialist and business coach Anne Miner.
"This [case] is particularly egregious," said Miner, reacting to the fact that the airlines should have been able to fix the problem, and didn't. "If the organization was my client, I would be letting them know that that was very poorly handled."
Miner says Air Transat and Porter need to make "some serious effort" to appease Doug and Nancy Lee, if only to protect their reputations.
After Go Public contacted Air Transat, the airline agreed to refund the cost of the couple's tickets — about $2,200 — "as a gesture of goodwill."
It declined to compensate the couple for the almost $8,000 they lost to the Irish tour company.
Lukács calls the offer "an insult."
"Air Transat should be offering to compensate the passenger fully for all his losses and make him whole," he said. "That's just what Air Transat has to do when it so incredibly badly messes up."
Nancy Lee says that as seniors, it'll be a long time before she and her husband can save up enough again for a trip like the one they'd planned to Ireland.
"I would like [Air Transat and Porter] to do the right thing," she said. "We all know what the right thing is."
Doug Lee says he, too, feels wronged and would like full compensation.
"It's hard to get past this one."
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