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Meet Gabor Lukacs, the child math prodigy turned professional airline troublemaker

Claire Brownell Financial Post 25 janvier 2016

Gabor Lukacs has filed 27 cases against the Canadian Transportation Agency, winning 24.

Gabor Lukacs has filed 27 cases against the Canadian Transportation Agency, winning 24. Source: Tim Krochak for National Post

It’s past noon, and all air passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs has eaten is a piece of chocolate.

Working from his Halifax home, he’s been too busy answering emails and handling cases to take a break. Plus, he needed to squeeze in a call with a colleague in Germany about mathematics — his actual profession by training.

He has calls with media scheduled for the afternoon about his latest win, with ultra-low cost carrier New Leaf Travel Co. temporarily halting sales while Canada’s airline regulator reviews its licence requirements. Over the last decade, he’s launched 27 cases with the Canadian Transportation Agency, winning 24 of them. Often, he doesn’t end up eating until 7 or 8 p.m.

“Unfortunately, sometimes I feel I spend too much time on this,” says Lukacs, 33. “I’m a mathematician and I want to do more mathematics … I’m getting more emails than I can sometimes handle.”

At 16, Lukacs’ life was on a very different trajectory. A child math prodigy, he moved to Canada from Israel to start his PhD at York University.

He took up a postdoctoral fellowship at Dalhousie University in 2005, where he developed an affection for Halifax and its famous friendliness. The following year, he headed to the University of Manitoba for a faculty position in math.

Lukacs could have sat back and enjoyed a long, secure career as an academic. If that became dull, he could have started a business or tried his hand at investing, focusing his brain power on making himself rich. Instead, he started kicking hornets’ nests.

In 2007, United Airlines cancelled his flight to Ohio, where he was scheduled to attend an academic conference, and denied his request to transfer to a flight on another airline. Lukacs took them to court.

In 2009, a PhD math student at the University of Manitoba failed an exam and appealed, saying he suffered from a disability. Lukacs took his employer to court as well, arguing the university took such extraordinary steps to accommodate the student that it undermined the institution’s academic integrity. Two years later, he and the University of Manitoba parted ways; Lukacs says they “reached mutually satisfactory settlements.”

Lukacs moved back to Halifax, where his career as Canada’s national antagonist of the aviation industry took off. If you’re ever bumped from an overbooked domestic flight resulting in a delay of more than six hours, you can thank Lukacs for the fact airlines are now required to pay you $800.

He’s also been behind a ruling that Porter Airlines has to be more clear about schedule changes and give refunds when it cancels flights. He considers his most significant legal victory of 2015 to be a Federal Court of Appeal ruling that the CTA must release uncensored air passenger complaints to the public if asked.

Lukacs regularly makes the news in Canada for his airline advocacy work, but few here know he was in the public eye for a different reason at an early age. At eight, Lukacs had his first brush with the legal system as Israel’s test case of the Hague Convention on international child abduction after his father brought him there from Hungary to escape an abusive mother. In the process of helping his non-Hebrew-speaking father navigate the court system and win his custody battle, Lukacs forged an impulse to kick up a fuss in the face of injustice.

“As a small, eight-year-old kid playing with toys, I had to understand what a motion of stay is, what an emergency order is, what a court proceeding is,” he says. “It gave me a different perspective on things.”

Lukacs at his home in Halifax.

Lukacs at his home in Halifax. Source: Tim Krochak for National Post

A friend of a friend helped Lukacs’ father get him out of Hungary by dressing him up as a girl, sneaking him past officials using her daughter’s passport. Lukacs says airport security workers became suspicious of his father and the woman and searched their suitcases, but never looked closely at him. It’s a good thing they didn’t, because his eye colour didn’t match the one listed on the girl’s passport.

“I was playing a very shy girl, always looking down,” Lukacs says. “Nobody ever noticed.”

Lukacs says the incident helped him empathize with the plight of refugees, who he often advocates for. While fighting airlines and the CTA over things like compensation for being bumped off an overbooked flight might seem frivolous, Lukacs says it’s important to remember that strong airline passenger rights can be an issue of life or death for people fleeing persecution.

Lukacs says he used to help people with family law issues in Hungary, but stopped because it was taking a heavy emotional toll. That type of advocacy work was also more demanding on his time than air passenger rights.

Advocating for air passengers also carries fewer risks than advocating for refugees directly. Lukacs says he doesn’t want to be kept up at night worrying that a mistake could mean the imprisonment or torture of a client.

I believe one has to live one’s life according to principles if one wants society to work

“I can help sustain some values I very strongly believe in — which is the rule of law, which is something I was suffering from the lack of in my youth,” he says. “At the same time, the consequences are not that disastrous … if I do something wrong, if I mess up.”

Lawyers sometimes pay Lukacs to work as a law clerk for them on cases related to air travel and he’s available for hire as a consultant. He says he would like to form a more official organization and find a way to make more money from the expertise he’s amassed.

In general, however, he has few complaints about life as a professional pain in the rear end to airlines.

“If I could choose between having, maybe … air passenger rights in a more organized way with a more reasonable budget, or having a billion-dollar investment, I would choose the former,” Lukacs says. “I believe one has to live one’s life according to principles if one wants society to work.”


Source: Financial Post, January 25, 2016