Omar Alghabra suggests airlines will no longer be able to use ‘safety reason’ loophole to avoid paying compensation to travellers
The federal government has pledged to take action against loopholes that allow airlines to deny customers compensation for cancelled flights, promising to overhaul air passenger rights legislation in the spring session of Parliament.
Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra made the announcement at a March 14 press conference at Toronto Pearson Airport. The minister also pledged funding of $75.9 million over the next three years to address a significant backlog of 42,000 passenger complaints about airlines filed with the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA).
The CTA is an independent, quasi-judicial tribunal and regulator, responsible for investigating claims under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations, first passed in 2019 to address complaints by Canadian travellers about airlines over cancelled or delayed flights, denial of boarding, and lost luggage.
Calling the backlog “huge,” Alghabra said the money would allow 200 more staff to be hired to handle complaints and improve procedures.
Alghabra suggested airlines will no longer be able to reject claims for compensation by blaming safety issues for cancelled flights as part of planned revisions to the regulations.
“We are working on major changes to passenger rights to ensure that the burden of proof no longer rests with travellers but with the airline,” he said.
“Obviously we don’t want planes to fly when it’s unsafe to do so. But there are certain things that are within the control of the airlines, and we need to have clearer rules that puts the responsibility on the airlines when it’s their responsibility,” he added. “Travellers have rights, and these rights must be respected by airlines.”
Onus on Passengers
Gábor Lukács, president of Air Passenger Rights, a nonprofit passenger advocacy organization, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about Alghabra’s promises, but he fears the government lacks the “courage” to harmonize Canada’s system with the European gold standard, which he says has a proven 16-year track record.
The regulations put in place by the European Union require compensation to be provided for flight cancellations or significant delays, except under “extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided,” such as extreme weather and war. Compensation is distinct from a refund.
In Canada, flights cancelled or delayed due to unspecified “safety reasons” do not require compensation.
“I expect some cosmetic changes, but I fear they will just make things even more complicated,” Lukács told The Epoch Times.
Lukács says he has filed more than two dozen successful complaints with the CTA, which, according to his organization, has resulted in orders directing airlines to “amend their conditions of carriage and offer better protection to passengers.” He also was granted intervenor status in a 2020 federal court case in which the airlines challenged the passenger protection regulations.
He has been advocating for air passenger rights since 2008 and incorporated Air Passenger Rights as a federal nonprofit organization in 2019. In all that time, says Lukács, the transport minister has refused to meet with his group.
Lukács said, “He only meets with airlines.”
In November 2022, Lukács addressed the House of Commons transport committee, and in December 2022 submitted a report entitled, “From the Ground Up: Revamping Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regime.”
Some of the criticisms he highlighted about the existing passenger rights compensation framework included: lack of plain language, complicated legal terms, and a lengthy pre-hearing process—which requires passengers to subpoena detailed records from airlines about their aircraft fleet information, maintenance records, and other matters—to support a claim for what ends up being a few hundred dollars.
Lukács also notes the CTA demonstrates “systemic failure” to use its existing powers and impose significant penalties or fines on airlines that disregard passenger rights.
He said the fines levied against the airlines are so low, they “make violating passengers’ rights more profitable than obeying the law.”
According to data provided by the CTA, enforcement officers have issued 30 notices of violation with overall penalties totalling $645,630 in the 2022–23 year to date, and recorded 623 violations.
In an example of the most recent enforcement actions listed by CTA for 2023, WestJet received a penalty of $112,800 on Feb. 9, for 122 violations between July 4, 2022, and Jan. 7—for either not providing compensation to passengers for travel issues within 30 days, or for failing to provide an explanation for why compensation would not be issued.
Air Transat was fined $38,500 on March 3 for 14 violations of failing to inform passengers why there was a flight delay between Aug. 8 and Aug 30, 2022.
Sunwing was issued a penalty of $126,000 on Feb. 14 based on 32 violations of failing to update passengers with reasons for a flight delay, and four violations of failing to provide status updates to delayed passengers as required by the regulations.
Swoop was also penalized $14,640 for 61 violations of failing to compensate passengers or failing to provide a reason for denying compensation, for the time period between May 10 to Sept. 7, 2022.
Flair Airlines was charged $39,000 in penalties for 40 violations of failing to provide passengers with the required $500 when they arrived at their destination more than 9 hours after the original flight time, between June 27 and Aug. 8, 2022, as required by the regulations.
Alghabra suggested there may be additional legislative reforms to CTA’s role.
“We are looking at strengthening the rules, as I said, and perhaps looking at increasing the authorities that the CTA has. But I leave it up to the CTA to exercise its judgment and when and how to impose these fines,” Alghabra said.
The minister also suggested that airlines will be encouraged to deal with customer complaints instead of forcing travellers to go through a complaint process, but did not provide specific details.
“There will be a disincentive for the airlines … to defer to the CTA,” said Alghabra.
The Canadian Press contributed to this report.