Complaints pour in from passengers denied compensation for delayed flights

Canada’s new air passenger regulations mandating compensation for delayed or cancelled flights are off to a bumpy start.

After CBC News posted a story Sunday about complaints from passengers recently denied compensation, more than 50 people have written in, detailing their cases and questioning why their requests for compensation were rejected by the country’s major airlines.

While it’s hard to pinpoint the root causes, it’s clear something has gone off-course with the new rules, said Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) spokesperson Ian Jack, whose organization took part in the consultation process.

“If the system were working properly, people wouldn’t be feeling this level of frustration,” said Jack. “The carriers need to get better at this and the government needs to get better at enforcing the rules.”

On Tuesday, the federal government weighed in on the issue, advising disgruntled passengers to file a complaint with Canada’s airline watchdog, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA).

“I encourage Canadians who feel that they did not get an adequate response, where they feel that their rights were not respected, to go to the Canadian Transportation Agency,” said Transport Minister Marc Garneau.

What are the complaints?

The federal government’s new regulations took effect on Dec. 15, mandating that large airlines — such as Air Canada and WestJet — pay up to $ 1,000 in compensation for a delay that’s within the airline’s control and not safety-related.

Passengers are required to file individual compensation claims with the airlines. But the travellers who contacted CBC say the reasons their compensation requests were rejected either didn’t make sense or didn’t match their version of events.

Most of the complaints involve Air Canada, Canada’s largest airline, which carried more than 50 million passengers in 2018. Air Canada said it fully intends to abide by the new regulations and deals directly with its customers.

One passenger from Ottawa, who didn’t want her name published, sent CBC News documents showing that Air Canada denied her compensation for a delayed flight last month, but paid her husband — on the same flight — $ 1,000.

Kristin Radtke, of Edmonton, had a similar experience. She was denied compensation for a six-hour delay on Christmas Day, but her fiancé received $ 700.

After sharing her story with CBC last week, Radtke said Air Canada contacted her Monday to apologize for what it described as an “error,” promising to send her a $ 700 cheque. 

Greg Holden, of Thunder Bay, Ont., says Air Canada’s explanation as to why he was denied delayed flight compensation last month doesn’t add up. (Greg Holden)

Greg Holden, of Thunder Bay, Ont., sent documents showing that Air Canada denied him the mandated $ 1,000 compensation for a 13-hour delay of a Toronto-to-Las Vegas flight on Jan. 17.

The delay forced Holden to spend the night at the airport.

At the time, Air Canada blamed the mishap on “aircraft maintenance.” But when Holden filed his claim, Air Canada turned him down, stating the delay was instead due to “bad weather,” which is considered out of the airline’s control and doesn’t warrant compensation. 

“It was clear skies,” said Holden, who is fighting his case. “If there were logical answers, I would likely be more able to accept what happened. But right now, nothing from start to finish has made any sense.”

Growing pains?

Growing pains are to be expected with the new regulations, said the National Airlines Council of Canada, a trade association that represents Air Canada, WestJet and Air Transat.

“Bear in mind the regulations are complex and relatively new, and both consumers and industry are adjusting to the new requirements,” CEO Mike McNaney said in an email.

Many flights actually won’t qualify for compensation, he said. “Frequently, delays are caused by issues beyond an airline’s control.”

Regardless of the cause, Ian Jack said passengers deserve a satisfactory explanation that doesn’t leave them questioning the airline’s decision.

“It’s up to the carriers to properly communicate, unless they want to be inundated with complaints.”

Canadian Automobile Association spokesperson Ian Jack says passengers deserve detailed explanations about why they were denied compensation. (Jean-Francois Benoit/CBC)

Echoing the transport minister’s comments, consumer advocate John Lawford agrees that dissatisfied passengers should file a complaint with the CTA. They might not only win compensation, he said, but it also will give the agency an indication of what may be going wrong.

“If there are standard kinds of excuses that are being pushed out by the airlines, I think that’s an enforcement matter for CTA, and that with time, they will read the riot act to the companies,” said Lawford, who is executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. 

Jack said the CTA needs to release data on the complaints received and the outcomes, so that everyone can assess the situation.

“The next step here is to get more of this information into the public realm, so all of us — watchdogs, media and travellers themselves — can judge whether the system is working the way it should.”

The CTA said it has received an “unprecedented” 9,757 complaints for all airline issues to date, starting from when the first phase of the air passenger regulations took effect on July 15, 2019.

That seven-month period represents an almost 28 per cent increase from the 7,650 complaints the CTA received in its previous entire fiscal year, running from April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019. 

Due to the high volume of complaints, the CTA said it will soon post an “online dashboard” to provide information about the number of complaints it has received, broken down by airline.

CBC | Business News

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