Government looking to strengthen air passenger protection rules after holiday chaos, minister says

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra says he’s looking to strengthen air passenger protection regulations at a time of rising frustration with Canada’s airlines.

Hundreds of travellers who used Sunwing to reach warm destinations over the holiday season found themselves stranded due to flight delays and cancellations. The airline attributed the delays to the major storm that much of Canada was dealing with around Christmas.

Many passengers were stranded for days as Sunwing attempted to adjust its flights.

But passengers on other airlines began experiencing flight disruptions as early as the spring, when demand for air travel began to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Current regulations require an airline to compensate passengers when a flight is delayed or cancelled for a reason that is within the airline’s control. In cases of weather delays, airlines are required to keep passengers informed and rebook them. If they can’t be rebooked within 48 hours, the airline is required to offer a refund.

Compensation amounts for flight delays within the airline’s control and not safety-related. The amount depends on how late the passenger arrives at their destination, compared to the arrival time indicated on their original ticket. (cbc)

But the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) — a quasi-judicial tribunal and regulator tasked with settling disputes between airlines and customers — has been dealing with a ballooning backlog of complaints from passengers who say they’ve been denied compensation.

In August, the backlog stood at 18,200 as complaints began flooding into the agency. It spiked to more than 30,000 complaints by the end of November.

Alghabra told CBC Radio’s The House in an interview airing Saturday that the government is looking at strengthening the rules so that complaints against airlines are settled before reaching the CTA.

“Last summer and this winter, we’ve seen certain examples where passengers felt they were not communicated with, their rights were not upheld,” he told host Catherine Cullen. “So we need to strengthen the rules.”

Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.
Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Dec. 1, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Alghabra didn’t go into detail about the measures he’ll be looking at. He did say he would like to see more responsibility placed on airlines to compensate passengers before they file complaints.

“Currently, it feels to many passengers that the burden is on them,” he said. “We want to make sure we put rules in place to ensure that the burden is on the airline.”

The current rules came into place in 2019, but air passenger rights expert Ian Jack said a re-examination of the regulations is well overdue.

“It’s about time that we hear this from the minister,” said Jack, a spokesperson for the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), a non-profit travel agency.

“The regime has clearly had its problems since its inception.”

While the number of complaints to the CTA has swelled over the past few months, the agency has been dealing with a backlog of air passenger complaints since the 2019 regulations came into place.

Sylvie De Bellefeuille, a lawyer with the Quebec-based advocacy group Option consommateurs, said the backlog could be much larger — but some passengers aren’t sure if they’re owed compensation or don’t feel they would receive the money they’re owed.

“They feel like it’s going to be a David against Goliath kind of situation, so a lot of people simply don’t request anything,” she said.

CTA officials recently told a parliamentary committee that some complainants could be kept waiting for their cases to be resolved for as long as 18 months.

Sunwing’s CEO Stephen Hunter and president Len Corrado issued an apology in an open letter on Thursday following the holiday travel debacle. They said the company is accepting eligible claims for compensation.

But both Jack and De Bellefeuille said passengers shouldn’t have to complain in the first place — that the rules should be changed to require more proactive compensation from airlines.

“Simplifying the regulations and making sure that people get compensated without having to ask — that may solve some of the issues,” De Bellefeuille said.

“This won’t clear up all the problems that are out there, but a significant chunk of them are quite clear-cut cases. And so, why should people have to wait months, if not years, to get a response, to get their money in cases like that?” Jack said.

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