The federal agency in charge of resolving disputes between airlines and passengers is working to streamline and improve service to Canadians, but says it's up to Parliament to chart a course for improved compensation for frustrated travellers.
Scott Streiner, the chair and chief executive officer of the Canadian Transportation Agency, said his office resolves nine of every 10 complaints it receives. But one of the biggest challenges is spreading the word to Canadians that the complaints process actually exists.
- Garneau hopes to ease travellers' frustrations
- 5 things you should know about flight rights
- Advocate fights for passenger rights
"The agency is a public institution — we're there to provide service to Canadians, and one of the things we have to do is make sure Canadians know that we exist and know that we offer recourse," he told CBC News Network's Power & Politics.
The Canadian Transportation Agency has launched informational videos on its website and YouTube channel that will begin showing in airports.
Steiner said his office typically receives 800 to 900 requests for assistance a year.
Most complaints lodged with the agency are related to flight disruptions. In the most recent 2014-15 report, there were 635 complaints around delayed or cancelled flights, up from 281 two years ago. Complaints about baggage were also on the rise, while complaints regarding fares waned.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau recently carried out a series of consultations across the country, with two of the sessions focusing on the passenger experience. He is looking for ways to improve service standards for air travellers.
Canada lags behind U.S., EU
In the U.S. and European Union, there are legally mandated standards for compensation for problems like lost baggage or bumped flights, and penalties for airlines that fail to meet service standards. For example, U.S. airlines are required to compensate passengers four times the ticket price if they are bumped due to overbooking and delayed more than four hours.
Streiner said Canada has taken a different approach, leaving it up to the airlines to outline service and compensation in individual tariffs. But he said they are often lengthy, legalistic and difficult for people to understand.
While the agency can help enforce those agreements through facilitation, mediation or adjudication, it's up to Parliament to determine whether there should be a passengers' bill of rights.
"Whether we get there through legislative change or regulatory amendment or better information to the public, at minimum I think travellers need to know what their rights are and those rights need to be described in clear, user-friendly language, and they need to have recourse mechanisms that are accessible and that are efficient," he said. "How do we get there? That's a matter for Parliament."
Canadians 'poor cousins' in passenger rights
Ian Jack, spokesman for the Canadian Automobile Association, which serves as a consumer advocate for leisure passengers, said Canada has been "standing still" and falling behind other countries that have brought in robust protection regimes.
The current complaints system does not meet the needs of travellers, he said. "Its process is very bureaucratic, drawn out and the vast majority of Canadians don't even know it exists."
Jack said that in the short term, there must be more transparency, better data collection and more published statistics on issues such as performance and bumping.
Bringing back an air travel complaints commissioner, which was cancelled in 2007, should also be a consideration.
"The industry doesn't want to go as far as the U.S. or the EU. I think we need to study that more closely to figure out what parts of those two regimes work. And at minimum we need to ensure that Canadians, when they travel internationally, that they aren't being disadvantaged by the fact we're the poor cousins when it comes to air passenger rights.
NDP MP Brian Masse, his party's critic for innovation, science and economic development, said Canada urgently needs a passenger bill of rights with legal standards to bring Canada in line with other countries. He described the current situation "embarrassing" and "like the fox guarding the henhouse."
He blamed years of political inaction for a system that leaves passengers stranded, inconvenienced or in unsafe or unsanitary conditions, and said people have "given up" on the Canadian Transportation Agency.
"It's more than just a consumer issue, it's very much an issue related to a set of rules for investment in the industry and also a set of rules important for safety and for public conduct for consumers," he said. "It involves everything from vacations to business to important moments in your life, and there should be a focus on safety, security and predictability. For heaven's sake, can't we get a rule book on those things?"
Stories abound about airline passengers frustrated by poor service, including the recent case of a 15-year-old boy who ended up sleeping overnight on the floor at Toronto Pearson International Airport after he was bumped from an Air Canada flight and provided a $10 food voucher.