Air Passenger Advocate and Former U of M Prof Takes Fight to New Heights with Constitutional Challenge

Air Passenger Advocate and Former U of M Prof Takes Fight to New Heights with Constitutional Challenge

By Tim Callanan, The Canadian Press

HALIFAX – A Halifax man who has been a thorn in the side of Canada’s airline industry is taking his crusade to the next level.

After years of bringing complaints against the airlines before the Canadian Transportation Agency, Gabor Lukacs is challenging the operations of the agency itself.

The mathematician has launched a constitutional challenge against the regulator, claiming its failure to disclose evidence received while reviewing passenger complaints is a violation of the open court principle in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It’s the latest in a series of battles with the airlines that are increasingly taking over his life.

In recent years, Lukacs has been responsible for increasing the compensation Canadians receive when they are bumped by overbooking. Air Canada, Porter Airlines and Air Transat are among the companies whose policies have changed because of his complaints.

But the 32-year-old admits he’s surprised to find his life has taken this direction. Born in Hungary, Lukacs came to Canada at the age of 16 and earned his PhD in mathematics at York University in Toronto. His academic career includes stints teaching at Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University and the University of Manitoba.

His frustrations with Canadian airlines began when he started travelling for his academic work.

“I didn’t realize that people so badly hate Air Canada,” he said.

“If you want one national religion, which kind of transcends any kind of faith, it’s, you know, maple syrup, hockey and hate Air Canada.”

Since 2009, Lukacs says the Canadian Transportation Agency has made 26 decisions in cases he started and he has won 24 of them.

The Canadian Transportation Agency said as Lukacs’s challenge is before the courts, it would not comment. Air Canada also declined comment.

Lukacs’s advocacy for passengers rights is less about his personal experiences, he said, and more about seeing an area where he feels he can make a positive change for Canada.

“It really looks like it takes somebody who wasn’t even born in this country to say, ‘OK, this is wrong,’ ” he said.

Canadians now reach out to him with their air travel frustrations. He said he gets emails every week from passengers looking for advice.

On Tuesday, Lukacs will be at a Halifax court making the constitutional challenge that was sparked when he was looking into a case where passengers were bumped from a connecting flight. The passengers said they made it to the gate on time, while the airline said they were late and had given away their seats.

Lukacs said he tried to get documents from the Canadian Transportation Agency to better understand the complaint, but what he received was heavily censored.

“What I’ve been seeing is over the last years is a complete degradation of the agency’s work and the development of this … smokescreen kind of secrecy around how things are being done,” he said.

Lukacs argues that because the Canadian Transportation Agency functions like a court, it should make material in its proceedings publicly available. Otherwise, he said, there is no way of ensuring passengers’ complaints are fairly addressed with proper evidence.

His court appearance on Tuesday is one of two he will make this week. In preparation, the self-represented mathematician spends hours with friends quizzing him and trying to dismantle the argument he will make in a courtroom before professionals with law degrees.

While he’s happy to hold airlines accountable for now, Lukacs said he would love to step back a bit and give more time to math.

“Air passenger rights is important but … the laws can be changed at a whim. When you prove a theorem in mathematics, it remains true forever unless your proof is wrong.”

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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Gabor Lukacs earned his PhD before arriving in Canada, and that he had 37 cases before the Canadian Transportation Agency.

CP - The Canadian Press