The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) has been flooded with more than 3,000 complaints from passengers in recent weeks, questioning why their airlines denied them compensation for delayed flights.
The complaints — 3,037 in all — poured in over the eight-week period, from Dec. 15 to Feb. 13.
To give some perspective, that tally is equal to about 40 per cent of the 7,650 complaints involving all passenger beefs that the CTA received in the entirety of its most recent fiscal year.
The federal government introduced new regulations on Dec.15 that mandate airlines must pay up to $1,000 in compensation for flight delays and cancellations within the airline’s control and not safety-related.
At the time, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the rules would give passengers protections that are “clear, consistent, transparent and fair.”
However, the new regulations have led to confusion and frustration for many passengers who claim the airlines aren’t providing valid reasons when denying compensation.
“Clearly passengers are upset,” said Michael Kerr, who believes Air Canada unfairly denied him compensation.
The CTA is investigating the Toronto man’s case as part of an official inquiry launched on Feb. 13, which will examine many of the 3,037 complaints.
Kerr filed a complaint with the CTA after Air Canada rejected his compensation claim following an eight-hour delay on a Halifax-to-Toronto flight on Feb. 2.
Air Canada crew had promised passengers on the flight compensation, he said, even handing out compensation information pamphlets. However, the airline later rejected Kerr’s claim, stating in an email that the plane was delayed due to a “safety-related issue.”
“I was kind of surprised by that,” said Kerr. “It kind of seemed like an escape hatch for them to get out of the financial reimbursements.”
CTA inquiry looks at 570 complaints
Kerr’s complaint is one of 570 selected by the CTA for its inquiry; 378 of those complaints involve Air Canada, which is Canada’s largest airline, and the remaining 192 are scattered among Sunwing, WestJet, Air Transat, Swoop and United Airlines.
The CTA said it doesn’t have the resources to investigate all 3,037 complaints as part of the inquiry, and that the remaining 2,467 will be dealt with at a later date.
The agency didn’t offer a timeline for the remaining complaints, but said the inquiry’s findings may help in resolving them.
Consumer advocate John Lawford said he warned the federal government that it would be swamped with complaints in response to the new regulations and that it needed to allocate more resources toward resolving them.
“When you have a federally regulated service that affects every Canadian, like transport or banking or telecom, you’re going to have in the tens of thousands of complaints,” said Lawford, the executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. “I just don’t think that they were [ready].”
Transport Canada told CBC News that the government had already beefed up the CTA’s resources before the new rules took affect and that it will continue to monitor the situation.
The new regulations are clear and consistent and “if airlines do not follow the rules, they will be subject to fines,” Transport Canada spokesperson John Cottreau said in an email.
What about the airlines?
Lawford also expressed disappointment with the airlines, suggesting they’re trying to interpret the regulations in their favour whenever possible.
“They’re gonna push it right up to the line, because they’re for-profit businesses and they don’t want to spend money on this,” he said.
Air Canada, which carries more than 50 million passengers annually, told CBC News that its policy is to abide by the new regulations and that it has devoted “considerable resources” to dealing with compensation claims.
“It is not unreasonable that an adjustment period would be required to adapt to these complicated new rules,” the airline said in an email.
WestJet, Swoop and United Airlines all said that they intend to co-operate with the CTA’s inquiry, while Air Transat and Sunwing declined to comment while the inquiry is ongoing.
The underlying problem is that the airlines have been allowed to design their own complaints process, Lawford said, adding that he hopes the CTA inquiry will lead to new guidelines or specific additional regulations on how airlines respond to complaints.
“In order to bury the hatchet on all this, the minister should issue actual regulations,” he said.
If Kerr wins his case with the CTA, he’ll likely get $700 in compensation. But he said his main hope with the inquiry is that it leads to positive changes for all air passengers.
“I hope there are stricter rules and that there are no escape hatches, where airlines try to say one thing, but actually something else goes on behind the scenes.”
It doesn’t appear that any of the 3,037 CTA complaints have yet been resolved, but several Air Canada passengers who previously spoke to CBC News about their issues have reported that that airline has since offered them compensation.