Air Canada vomit incident taps into broader frustration with airlines, experts say

By Christopher Reynolds in Montreal

The outrage sparked by news of a passenger incident involving a vomit-smeared airplane seat reflects a broader frustration with flight operations in Canada, travel experts say.

On Tuesday, Air Canada said it apologized to two passengers who were escorted off the plane by security after protesting that their seats were soiled — and still damp — ahead of an Aug. 26 flight from Las Vegas to Montreal.

“They clearly did not receive the standard of care to which they were entitled,” the airline said in a statement emailed to The Canadian Press. “Our operating procedures were not followed correctly in this instance.”

In a Facebook post that has since gone viral, Susan Benson of New Brunswick said she was in the row behind the two women when she detected “a bit of a foul smell but we didn’t know at first what the problem was.”

“They placed coffee grinds in the seat pouch and sprayed perfume to mask the smell,” she said in the Aug. 29 post.

“When the clearly upset passengers tried to explain to the flight attendant that the seat and seatbelt were wet and there was still visible vomit residue in their area, the flight attendant was very apologetic but explained that the flight was full and there was nothing they could do,” Benson said.

After a “back-and-forth” argument with cabin crew, the pair asked for blankets and wipes to clean the area themselves before a pilot told them they could either leave the plane voluntarily or be escorted off by security and placed on a no-fly list due to rude behaviour — a characterization Benson rejected.

“They were upset and firm, but not rude.”

John Gradek, who teaches aviation management at McGill University, says the aircraft never should have been dispatched, given the “biological hazard” on board.

“What the heck are you doing?” he asked of the carrier.

The outcry on social media sparked by the incident speaks to a degraded level of service perceived by Canadians after a year marred by frequent flight delays and lost luggage, said former Air Canada chief operating officer Duncan Dee.

“People’s patience is likely wearing thin,” he said.

“I think travellers can relate to those two travellers’ experience out of Las Vegas, because they feel they’ve had their travels disrupted to a much greater degree than prior to (the pandemic).”

While photos of snaking lines and posts of passenger frustrations at Toronto’s Pearson airport popped up on social media over the summer, the chaos of overflowing terminals and luggage-clogged arrival areas that marked the 2022 travel season did not come to pass, due in part to more prepared players and fully staffed agencies and security contractors.

Nonetheless, Air Canada ranked last in on-time performance among the 10 largest airlines in North America in July, a recent report found. Canada’s biggest carrier landed 51 per cent of its flights on time that month, according to figures from aviation data firm Cirium.

“Last summer you had the three Canadian airports top the global charts for cancellations. This summer saw significant delays due to air traffic control,” Dee said.

Of the latest incident, he added: “These seat cushions are removable.”

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Armando Franca

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 6, 2023.

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