'So frustrating': How to complain about your airline and why the rules may change

This week, Ottawa announced it will introduce a bill of rights to help protect air passengers. CBC News outlines how Canadians can currently do battle with their airline and why critics are adamant we need change.

Ottawa promising bill of rights to help protect air passengers

Frigid temperatures in January forced Toronto's Pearson airport to call a one-day 'ground stop,' which prevented domestic flights from landing at Canada's largest airport. The resulting delays left many passengers waiting hours for flights. (David Donnelly/CBC)

You've just endured an exhausting and exasperating flight delay. And you're unhappy with your compensation — perhaps a discount off your next trip with the same airline.

So what do you do? In the U.S. and Europe, air carriers must follow standard regulations and compensation guidelines for things like delays, overbooking and lost luggage.

But in Canada, each airline sets its own policy. So if you believe you've been treated unfairly, it's up to you to fight for your rights.

There were 20 to 50 people who I thought were going to start a riot.— Airline passenger Joe Bornstein

The situation may soon change — at least somewhat. This week, Ottawa announced it will introduce an air passenger bill of rights "in the months ahead."

Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the bill will establish clear minimum requirements to ensure air passengers "are protected by rules that are both fair and clear."

Passenger rights advocates are pleased, but no one is celebrating just yet. That's because Garneau's announcement is scant on details and questions linger about enforcement.

Here's an outline on how Canadians can currently do battle with their airline. And why critics are adamant we need change.

Air Canada passengers expressing their anger after learning their flight from Rio to Toronto was delayed for a second day, in October. (Darryl Metcalfe)

Step No. 1: Complain to your airline

The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) tells unhappy passengers to first take up their beef with their carrier.

That's precisely what Joe Bornstein did after enduring an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Barcelona that was delayed for 24 hours.

"It was so frustrating. It just felt disrespectful," Bornstein says about the Sept. 20 flight.

He says he and about 300 other passengers were made to wait — mostly on board — while the airline addressed a mechanical problem.

Bornstein says it took the crew at least four hours to offer any food: water and candy bars.

He estimates after a total wait of close to six hours, passengers were sent back to the airport where they eventually learned their flight would be delayed until the following day.

"There were 20 to 50 people who I thought were going to start a riot," says Bornstein.

Joe Bornstein's Air Canada flight to Barcelona was delayed for 24 hours. He was not happy with the airline's compensation offer. (Joe Bornstein)

After another wait for his luggage, he grabbed a cab to his Toronto home rather than stand in line for a complimentary limo pass.

For compensation, Air Canada offered Bornstein a 30 per cent discount off a future fight.

He wasn't happy. "This is really just a gimmick for Air Canada to get me and other people to fly with them again."

Disappointing discount

So Bornstein complained to the airline. He asked for a 30 per cent discount off his Barcelona fight instead.

He also asked Air Canada to cover his round trip cab fare and his first night's hotel stay in Barcelona — he missed it due to the delay but was still charged.

We were pulled out of our vacation and sent to Calgary.— Airline passenger Frank Morris 

Air Canada turned him down. It told him in an email that it regretted the delay but that its "liability for expenses incurred due to scheduled interruptions is limited."

The airline added that his insurance would probably cover the hotel bill.

Bornstein was displeased with the response. "It just felt disingenuous."

He thought his battle ended there, but it doesn't have to. If Bornstein wants to pursue it further, he can take his complaint to the CTA itself. 

Like Bornstein, many Canadians don't realize they have this option. The agency says it's working hard to raise more awareness about its complaints system.

Step No. 2: Take it to the CTA

Frank Morris of Southampton, Ont., took his complaint to the CTA after he was unhappy with a response from WestJet.

Morris and his wife booked a trip from Toronto to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, returning on March 2.

Due to a booking error made by WestJet, the couple wound up on a different return flight than the one on their e-tickets.

Morris discovered the mistake on the last day of their vacation. He says he and his wife had to scramble because their new flight left about two hours earlier. It also included a stop-over, adding three and a half hours to the trip.

"It was devastating. We were pulled out of our vacation and sent to Calgary which I didn't want to go to."

They couldn't switch to the direct flight they held tickets for because it was full.

Morris complained to WestJet that he wanted compensation that the airline offers to passengers bumped from overbooked flights — about $650 cash at the time.

Frank Morris in South Hampton, Ont believes he deserves more compensation from WestJet because he couldn't take the return flight listed on his ticket. (Frank Morris)

WestJet turned him down, saying he had to take a different flight due to a booking error, not because of bumping. The airline offered the couple $350 each for future flights on WestJet.

"We feel this final offer of compensation is fair," wrote the airline in an email to Morris.

Morris disagreed. "I don't care how they did it, I had a confirmed ticket."

So Morris submitted a complaint to the CTA.

But the CTA agent sided with WestJet and told him the complaint would be "closed." 

No. 3: Take it higher

But at this point, Morris' case is technically not closed. The CTA later told CBC News that "closed" meant the agency could do nothing further for him at the facilitation stage.

Dissatisfied complainants can next opt for mediation to resolve the matter. And if that doesn't work, the agency offers a court-like adjudication process.

But Morris says he's already fed up with Canada's complaints system and intends to take his case to small claims court.

"People shouldn't have to go through what I'm going through. And I'm not finished."

Ottawa says its bill of rights for air passengers will ensure they are 'protected by rules that are both fair and clear.'

The CTA told CBC News in an email that "Canada's airlines are among the best in the world." CTA also said its complaints system works well and that the agency "is working hard to make it even better."

But both Morris and Bornstein want to see a clear set of regulations for airlines that would prevent disgruntled passengers from having to fight their own battles.

The federal government is promising something on this front. But Halifax-based air passenger rights advocate, Gabor Lukacs cautions that set regulations don't guarantee a turbulence-free system.

He believes the government also needs to step up and police the airlines. Otherwise, "even the best bill of rights will remain toothless," he says.


Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won at Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact:


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