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Air Canada employee says staff trained to ‘dupe’ passengers at risk of being bumped from oversold flights



A pair of Air Canada insiders are shedding light on the airline’s policy of overselling flights, revealing what they say is a widespread practice of duping passengers into believing they have a seat on a plane and stringing them along until the last possible moment.

As a way to try to maximize revenues, airlines are allowed to sell more plane tickets for a flight than there are available seats, but the former and current ticket agents who spoke with Go Public say Air Canada is less than transparent with customers who are likely to be denied boarding because a flight has been oversold.

“It’s never fun to have to lie to people,” said the former customer sales and service agent, who worked at Air Canada’s check-in counter at Vancouver International Airport for several months before quitting just over a year ago.

“I had to tell people over and over again that they were gonna get on the plane, when I knew that they might not.”

The other insider, a longtime Air Canada ticket agent who still works for the airline and trains employees, says he is now one of the people teaching new agents to not be forthcoming.

“I say to the new hired agents, ‘You can’t put up with confrontation all day long. If someone has ‘GTE’ [for “gate”] on their boarding pass, it means they don’t have a seat. But if you explain that to them, they’ll get upset. So just send them to the gate,'” he told Go Public.

“I train people to dupe passengers.”

The day he spoke with Go Public, he said he’d pointed dozens of Air Canada customers to a gate knowing they didn’t have a seat.

CBC has agreed not to identify the current and former Air Canada employees because doing so could jeopardize their current employment.

Air Canada says the practice of overselling is carefully managed, and employees are trained to be transparent with customers.

‘Every route could be oversold’

The former Air Canada agent said he contacted Go Public because he wanted travellers to know how often staff are forced to scramble to find seats for passengers stuck on oversold flights.

“I was shocked,” he said. “I had no idea that Air Canada was doing this at this scale.”

I told them they had nothing to be worried about, and it absolutely killed me.– Former Air Canada ticket agent

It didn’t matter if passengers were flying within Canada, to the U.S. or overseas, he said. 

“Every route could be oversold.”

‘It absolutely killed me’

The former agent says he quit because he couldn’t take the stress of constantly misleading customers.

As an example, he tells the story of an excited family flying together for the first time. When they checked in, their boarding passes didn’t have assigned seats.

“I just felt awful about it, but I had to say that they were going to have a great trip, and push them through [to the gate],” he said.

“They ended up not getting on. I tracked them, and they were bumped. It was the last flight out that day.”

A former Air Canada agent tells Go Public’s Erica Johnson that he became so distraught about lying to passengers about overbooked flights, it took a toll on his health. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

He remembers a couple on their way to a honeymoon in Hawaii, who didn’t have confirmed seats on an oversold flight.

“I told them they had nothing to be worried about, and it absolutely killed me,” he said. “The chances of them making it on [the flight] were slim to none.”

In another case, a passenger who was on his way to have life-changing surgery in Alberta the next day stood a good chance of getting bumped from a flight, he said.

“I had to do a complimentary upgrade to make it happen — which is something that I shouldn’t have done. But at the end of the day, he needed to get on that plane.”

Your seat ‘will be assigned at the gate’

The former agent says he was told during training not to inform customers at the check-in counter that the reason they don’t have an assigned seat is because the flight was oversold.

“Nobody wants panic from the second of check-in. That’s not fun for the company to have to deal with,” he said. 

“I really wasn’t able to tell people exactly what was going on and give them the full picture. They were strict about that. We’re trained to tell them that … they have nothing to worry about.”

He says he also felt badly for colleagues working at the gates, who had to deal with passengers once they learned the flight was oversold and they didn’t have a seat.

Air Canada responds

Go Public requested an interview with Air Canada, but the airline declined.

In an email, spokesperson Angela Mah disagreed with many of the allegations made by the current and former Air Canada employees, and dismissed the impact of overselling.

“Overselling … accounts for less than 1 per cent of passengers booked,” wrote Mah, explaining that the airline flew approximately 51 million customers in 2017/18.

Air Canada says overselling ‘benefits customers by keeping fares lower’ and allows the airline to operate less-travelled routes. (Pat Fogg/CBC)

That one per cent amounts to 510,000 tickets oversold, but Mah says only a fraction of that number results in customers being denied boarding because “several million customers per year no-show.”

Mah pointed out that overselling is approved by the Canadian Transportation Agency and is a “common practice amongst many international network airlines to ensure the maximum number of seats are filled on a departing flight.”

Overselling “benefits customers by keeping fares lower” and allows the airline to operate less-travelled routes, Mah said.

She also said the bigger reason passengers end up with no seat on a plane is due to “overbooking” — when an aircraft is replaced with a smaller plane, for a host of potential reasons including mechanical issues. 

She would not confirm how often this happens, saying those numbers are “commercially sensitive” and an unavoidable reality for all airlines — including Air Canada’s competitor, WestJet. 

WestJet told Go Public it does not “intentionally oversell” seats.

Internal documents obtained

Internal documents on Air Canada’s employee website explain that the airline oversells flights because its management team “is tasked with ensuring that the maximum revenue potential is made on each and every flight.”

In 2017, Air Canada reported a profit of $2.04 billion, more than double what it earned the previous year. Figures for 2018 will be released shortly.

The website says the airline “uses a sophisticated system” to “calculate the acceptable level of oversell risk.”

It then explains what Air Canada agents should do in the event there are more passengers than seats for a flight.

A screenshot of an internal Air Canada website. It instructs agents to ‘make the compensation sound as attractive as possible’ when trying to entice passengers to give up their seats on oversold flights.

“When flights are oversold there is certainly a level of stress for both the gate agent and customers involved,” the website says.

“Soliciting volunteers to travel on later flights not only fulfills our legal requirements, but may also assist the gate agent in alleviating some of that stress. Making announcements for seeking volunteers [to give up their seats] makes a positive impression on our customers, by demonstrating that we are trying our best to accommodate all of our customers.”

The Air Canada agent who works in a busy airport says accommodating customers can sometimes be extremely difficult.

“It’s hell for us to have to turn these passengers away,” he said.

“Kids are crying. Saying, ‘Daddy, you promised we’d be [there] for dinner’ and I have to explain that the flight is oversold.”

Business passengers are ‘most valuable’

Fred Lazar, an airline industry analyst and associate professor of economics at York University’s Schulich School of Business, says one reason passengers might get bumped from a flight is because Air Canada has focused on servicing the country’s business sector — frequent flyers who want an international network of flight options and often pay premium fares for the flexibility of changing their flights last minute.

“Top-tier passengers are the most valuable,” Lazar said. 

“So [the airline] will bend over backwards to accommodate them, even if it means bumping some basic economy passengers from the airline and enduring the bad publicity for a short time.”

Airline industry analyst Fred Lazar says airlines accommodate their elite customers first. The passengers most likely to be bumped, he says, are infrequent, economy-fare flyers. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

The former Air Canada agent who spoke with Go Public says one way to ensure you have an actual seat on a plane is to log on to Air Canada’s website 24 hours before the flight to choose a seat. Or, pay a fee for seat selection when you buy your ticket.

“Anyone who has a seat assigned to their ticket when they get to the airport never has to worry about being put on standby,” he said.

Harder to claim compensation

Regardless of why an airline has more passengers than seats on a flight, new federal airline regulations coming down the runway will make it harder for travellers to claim compensation if they’re denied boarding, says Gabor Lukacs, founder of a Canadian advocacy group called Air Passenger Rights.

Currently, airlines must seek volunteers to give up their seats before denying anyone boarding. Passengers who are involuntarily bumped are entitled to compensation — up to $1,350 — depending on the airline, destination and length of the delay.

The new proposed regulations provide higher compensation, but require the passenger to prove they were denied boarding due to an oversold flight caused by a situation within the airline’s control.

“This is impossible to show,” Lukacs said.

“Passengers don’t have access to the airline’s reservation system. They don’t know how big the aircraft is. They don’t know how many seats were sold. Moreover, in situations where the airline moves passengers against their will to other flights, it is going to look as if the flight was not oversold.”

Air passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs says the federal government’s new proposed regulations will make it difficult for passengers to get compensation after they’ve been involuntarily denied boarding because the airline oversold a flight. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Lukacs says Canada should be emulating European standards, where anyone with a valid ticket who doesn’t get on their plane is considered to have been denied boarding — and is eligible for compensation.

“In Canada there is no excuse for drafting a definition so narrowly that people who pay their hard-earned dollars for their seats won’t get compensated when they are denied boarding on their flight,” he said.

‘Heavy penalties’ coming

Minister of Transport Marc Garneau says the new regulations won’t ensure everyone has a guaranteed seat, but will hold airlines responsible for denied boarding.

“They’re not going to get out of anything,” Garneau told Go Public, pointing to stiffer penalties in the new regulations.

He says there will be “heavy penalties” if a passenger is denied boarding because the airline oversold its flight — in some cases up to $2,400.

Email campaign

Lukacs says bigger fines are meaningless if passengers can’t prove they qualify for compensation.

His organization has started an email writing campaign for people to tell the federal government that the proposed air passenger rights regulations are inadequate.

So far, almost 5,000 people have participated in the campaign. The deadline for public feedback on the draft regulations is Feb. 20.

“Canadians are fed up with how airlines treat them,” he said.

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Russia’s Gazprombank freezes accounts of Venezuela’s PDVSA: source




FILE PHOTO: Cutouts depicting images of oil operations are seen outside a building of Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian lender Gazprombank has decided to freeze the accounts of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA and halted transactions with the firm to reduce the risk of the bank falling under U.S. sanctions, a Gazprombank source told Reuters on Sunday.

While many foreign firms have been cutting their exposure to PDVSA since the sanctions were imposed, the fact that a lender closely aligned with the Russian state is following suit is significant because the Kremlin has been among Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s staunchest supporters.

“PDVSA’s accounts are currently frozen. As you’ll understand, operations cannot be carried out,” the source said. Gazprombank did not reply to a Reuters request for a comment.

Reuters reported this month that PDVSA was telling customers of its joint ventures to deposit oil sales proceeds in its Gazprombank accounts, according to sources and an internal document, in a move to try to sideline fresh U.S. sanctions on PDVSA.

Washington says the sanctions, imposed on Jan. 28, are aimed at blocking Maduro’s access to the country’s oil revenue after opposition leader Juan Guaido proclaimed himself interim president and received widespread Western support.

Gazprombank is Russia’s third biggest lender by assets and includes among its shareholders Russian state gas company Gazprom.

The bank has held PDVSA accounts for several years. In 2013, PDVSA said it signed a deal with Gazprombank for $1 billion in financing for the Petrozamora company. The source said that Petrozamora accounts were frozen, too.

Russian officials have said they stand by Maduro and have condemned opposition actions as a U.S.-inspired ploy to usurp power in Caracas.

But Russian firms find themselves in a quandary, caught between a desire to endorse the Kremlin line and back Maduro, and the fear that by doing so they could expose themselves to secondary U.S. sanctions which would harm their businesses.

Reporting by Tatiana Voronova; Writing by Katya Golubkova; Editing by Christian Lowe and Mark Potter

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Airbus warns of no-deal Brexit, says has spent tens of millions preparing




A logo of Airbus is seen on a flag at Airbus headquarters in Blagnac, near Toulouse, France, February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

LONDON (Reuters) – Airbus said on Sunday it would have to make “difficult decisions” about future investment if Britain crashes out of the European Union without a deal, adding it had already spent tens of millions of euros in preparations.

“There is no such thing as a managed ‘no deal’, it’s absolutely catastrophic for us,” senior vice president Katherine Bennett told the BBC’s Andrew Marr.

“Some difficult decisions will have to made if there’s no-deal (…) we will have to look at future investments.”

She said Airbus had already spent “tens of million of euros” on preparing for Brexit, for example on stockpiling parts and securing IT systems.

Reporting by Paul Sandle; Editing by Mark Potter

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Public agencies paid millions to national translation firm that stiffs its workers




Government agencies have given millions of dollars in business to one of Canada’s biggest translation firms in recent years in the face of mounting evidence the company was shortchanging its contract workers — and, in some cases, despite warnings from their own staff.

From 2014 to 2017, federal, provincial and municipal governments and agencies spent at least $4.7 million on language services from Able Translations, public records show — everything from interpretation at legal proceedings to translation of medical records. 

Over the same period, the Mississauga, Ont.-based company weathered multiple news stories about its non-payment of freelancers, coupled with a mounting toll of lawsuits, largely from those very workers.

The cautionary signs came as early as 2013 that Able Translations was starting to stonewall the freelance translators and interpreters to whom it parcels out work.

But a number of those agencies only cut ties with the company last year, while some continue to use its services even as it’s on the brink, according to a CBC investigation into the firm’s financial delinquency.

They can see by their own eye that [Able] hurt workers, but they don’t care– Sunny Zhang , Mandarin interpreter

“That’s the ridiculous part of it,” said Sunny Zhang, a Mandarin interpreter and translator from Calgary who won a court judgment and is owed $8,300.

Most of Zhang’s unpaid invoices to Able Translations are for work she did for public-sector clients such as Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) and Alberta Health Services.   

Government agencies “can see by their own eye that [Able] hurt workers, but they don’t care.”

‘Keeps coming up’

As CBC revealed earlier this week, Able Translations owes more than $1 million to dozens of translators and other suppliers from as far afield as Korea and Egypt, as well as to the taxman. It has been sued 245 times in the last five years by translators and other creditors — among them, the Canada Revenue Agency, which obtained seizure orders for the company’s assets and put liens on the president’s home and luxury cars.

Able’s office, in a business park in Mississauga, Ont., is closed to visitors except ‘By appointment only,’ according to a sign posted in the window. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

While most of those developments arose out of the public eye, a number of the biggest public agencies using Able had their own indications all was not well, judging from more than a thousand pages of records CBC obtained under access-to-information laws.

“We are hearing more and more interpreter concerns regarding not being paid for their services. This issue keeps coming up,” wrote Fahreen Rayani, an Alberta WCB employee, to Able’s vice-president and co-owner, Annabelle Teixeira, on Feb. 17, 2016.

The previous autumn, CBC News and the Toronto Star had published stories about workers’ troubles in getting paid by Able. The stories were cited in complaint emails a number of interpreters sent to the WCB.

“They are notorious for late payments,” one wrote. “I have sent numerous letters of complaint regarding pay … I have never received a response to my emails.”

Able provided the WCB with a variety of explanations for why interpreters weren’t getting their money. Vice-president Teixeira wrote that sometimes, Able would mail out a cheque, but an interpreter just wouldn’t cash it. Other times, “either Canada Post does not deliver it or the interpreter moves and does not inform us.” In yet other cases, interpreters hadn’t invoiced yet, Teixeira said.

She attributed at least one non-payment to “irregularities” with a cheque, and said that generally, mail is slow getting to Alberta from Ontario.

In total, there were at least 10 complaints to the Alberta WCB about Able’s payment practices by fall 2016, when the WCB decided to extend Able’s contract to provide language services by six months.

‘Cheques have bounced’

Still more complaints arrived through the end of 2016 and into the new year, including one in February 2017 from a group of interpreters who stated, among several grievances, that “the company cheques have bounced.”

Teixeira responded at length to the Alberta WCB, concluding, “Finally, we have never had a cheque returned NSF” (non-sufficient funds).

In fact, that was not true. Court records from a lawsuit against Able in Ontario show that nine months earlier, it had bounced a cheque to a Mandarin interpreter from Toronto.

Despite all the complaints, at the end of March 2017, the WCB again extended Able’s contract  — along with those of its five other translation suppliers — this time by two years.

The organization said in a statement to CBC News that it has “significant demand” for translators for its clients, who often develop “long-standing, trusting relationships” with their interpreters, all of which weighed on the decision about whether to keep using Able’s services.

The WCB added that Able was “responsive” when presented with translators’ complaints about not getting paid, “so we chose to work on resolving complaints while allowing their contractors to continue working with our clients.”

The public agency said its global budget for language services is about $1.4 million a year, and of that, Able Translations’ slice ranged from as high as 65 per cent in 2016 to a more typical 20 per cent since then.

That is, until it prematurely terminated its agreement with Able Translations last May. “We determined they could not consistently deliver on their commitment to ensure their contractors were paid promptly,” the WCB statement said.

Ontario board had warnings, too

Ontario’s workers compensation agency, meanwhile, was aware of potential payment issues at Able as early as October 2013, when a translator wrote in. “Able Translations have not been paying for my services since May,” they said. “I have been sending emails asking for payments and they have ignored and not respond[ed] to my emails. I am not the only service provider that they are not paying.”

The WSIB’s manager of language services then emailed a colleague: “I spoke to the owner and president of Able Translations and he will investigate. I don’t believe there is anything more for us to do … It is an internal issue for them, not us.”

A handful more complaints trickled in in 2014 and 2015. About five months later, in April 2016, the WSIB extended its contract with Able Translations for two more years.

Then, in early 2017, another news report came out about Able’s workers struggling to get paid. It prompted a senior WSIB manager to suggest “we should be cancelling the contract,” internal emails show.

But that didn’t happen, at least not right away. The WSIB finally terminated its agreement last April. All told, from 2014 through the end of 2017, it gave $448,892 in business to Able Translations.

“We expect all of our vendors to conduct business in an ethical manner, which includes fair treatment of employees and proper payment practices,” the WSIB said in a statement.

Hospital looking elsewhere

CBC emailed Able Translations a list of questions about its business relationships and practices in November. Teixeira replied that “your research is incorrect in many details. I will provide further details for your review later this week.”

Despite weekly reminder emails and calls, she never did.

Over the years, the company has had contracts with numerous public bodies, including the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada,  Alberta Employment and Immigration and Ontario’s Finance and Natural Resources ministries, but no longer.

It still does business with the University Health Network (UHN) in Toronto, one of the country’s largest hospital and health research organizations.

‘We should not be doing business with companies that don’t pay their workers,’ said Gillian Howard of the University Health Network in Toronto. But she also said, ‘there aren’t lots of companies that provide the breadth and depth of translation that Able does.’ (CBC)

Access-to-information records show UHN paid $2.4 million to Able between 2014 and 2017 for interpretation services, largely at its network of workplace injury clinics.

UHN spokesperson Gillian Howard said the health organization recognizes “we should not be doing business with companies that don’t pay their workers,” and is diverting as much business as it can to other firms. 

But she said UHN needs access to interpreters in more than 100 languages, and “there aren’t lots of companies that provide the breadth and depth of translation that Able does.”

Have a tip on this or any other story? Email or call 416-205-7553.

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