She just wanted to enjoy her champagne in Canada

If you’re traveling to Canada, leave your alcohol on the plane. Don’t try to take it with you — at least, not if you’re flying Delta Air Lines. Otherwise, like Margaret Stephen, you may regret the experience — because those little alcohol bottles aren’t for carry-out.

Canadian customs agents and airport security recently escorted Stephen from her flight after she refused to return a little alcohol bottle as the flight attendant instructed.

“I am still stunned by the hideous event, and my perception was that they thought the whole thing was a waste of their time,” says Stephen. “There was an extreme amount of tension from the time they boarded the plane until they said I was free to go. Obviously, I was in a state of extreme stress, but they were on edge too. I could feel it — scary!”

Those little alcohol bottles have restrictions

We never advise engaging flight crew members in disputes. However unjustified their actions may seem, every airline’s flight crew members are empowered to remove passengers they deem a threat to the well-being of the crew and the other passengers. But we can’t help wondering if the crew overreacted in Stephen’s case and if Delta’s personnel are giving out false information about the legality of taking those little alcohol bottles off the plane.

On Stephen’s flight to Canada, she told our advocates that the flight attendant gave her a “a very small bottle of Prosecco.”

Later, another flight attendant asked Stephen for the bottle while collecting trash. Stephen told her that she wanted to keep the bottle. Unfortunately, the flight attendant replied that it was illegal to bring alcohol into Canada. She demanded that Stephen give back the bottle.

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You can’t take those little alcohol bottles into Canada

According to the flight attendant, both Canadian customs and Delta require air passengers to return those little alcohol bottles to the flight crew before landing. She showed Stephen a highlighted copy of Delta’s alcohol policy. Although Stephen then requested a copy of the policy for herself, the flight attendant did not give her one. Stephen surrendered the bottle of Prosecco to the flight attendant.

But when the plane landed, five uniformed persons boarded the aircraft and escorted Stephen off the plane. Two were Canadian customs agents; the other three appeared to be security personnel. One of the agents, asked Stephen if she had returned her bottle of alcohol to the flight attendant. Stephen answered “yes,” he left the area. Another customs agent then told Stephen that she was free to go. She promised Stephen that Delta would offer her an apology.

Stephen never received the promised apology from Delta. Although she might have complained to higher-ranking executives of the airline using the contact information on our website, she asked our advocates to help her get that apology.

Canadian rules about those airline bottles

Unfortunately for Stephen, Delta’s Canadian General Rules Tariff indicates that

Delta may refuse to transport any passenger, and may remove any passenger from its aircraft at any time, for any of the following reasons: …

Failure To Comply With Delta’s Rules Or Contract Of Carriage
When a passenger fails or refuses to comply with any of Delta’s rules or regulations or any term of the contract of carriage.

Passenger’s Conduct Or Condition
… By way of example, and without limitation, Delta may refuse to transport or remove passengers from its aircraft in any of the following situations:

  • When the passenger appears to be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, …
  • When the passenger’s behavior may be hazardous to himself/herself, the crew or other passengers,
  • And when the passenger’s conduct creates an unreasonable risk of offense or annoyance to other passengers.
  • When the passenger’s conduct creates a risk of harm or damage to the carrier’s aircraft or other property, or the property of other passengers.

So when an airline suspects a passenger of being drunk and who doesn’t comply with a crew member’s instructions, whatever their nature, risks ejection from the flight or other negative treatment by the airline — even if it doesn’t seem justified from that passenger’s perspective. And the lack of more specific language in the Tariff allows flight crews a lot of latitude in determining that a passenger is in violation of Delta’s rules and regulations.

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The flight attendant felt that Stephen’s initial failure to comply with her request that she hand over the bottle of Prosecco posed a threat or otherwise violated Delta’s rules or regulations. Unfortunately, as humiliating as Stephen’s experience was, she won’t prevail in a complaint against Delta for having customs agents remove her from the plane.

Did Delta Air Lines go too far?

Yet we have to wonder if Delta’s flight crew went too far in Stephen’s case.

The Canada Border Services Agency’s website suggests that travelers are allowed to bring alcoholic beverages into the country duty-free and tax-free, subject to limitations on quantities.  Nothing in the regulations listed on this website suggest that Stephen’s actions violated any Canadian limits for bringing alcohol into the country.

Also, according to Stephen, Delta doesn’t consistently enforce this policy.   She says that, in the past, Delta Air Lines has permitted her to take bottles of alcoholic beverages off her flight.

Unfortunately for Stephen, we don’t see how a customs agent could make a promise of an apology from Delta. Our advocate suggested that Stephen write to Delta’s executives to request the apology.

Is Margaret Stephen likely to receive an apology from Delta if she writes the airline’s executives a letter of complaint?

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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