Following recent travel chaos, Canada's major airlines hit with fines for hundreds of violations
Some critics say transport regulator needs to get tougher with misbehaving airlines
The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) has issued fines to Canada's major airlines for hundreds of violations related to mass flight delays and cancellations last summer and in December.
The violations frequently concern failure to update passengers during flight disruptions or promptly address their compensation claims.
Some passengers and industry experts argue the fines, which typically range between $2,500 and $39,000, aren't much of a deterrent for misbehaving airlines.
"The fines are low," said Ian Jack, a spokesperson for the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), a non-profit travel agency. "We have yet to see the regulator really bring out a big stick on anything."
The CTA, Canada's transport regulator, is tasked with enforcing federal air passenger protection regulations (APPR).
Since the regulations came into effect in 2019, the agency has been flooded with tens of thousands of complaints that the airlines aren't playing by the rules.
The CTA doled out the biggest fine — $126,000 — to Sunwing for 36 violations for failing to keep passengers updated during flight delays in December.
That month, a winter storm forced the airline to cancel 67 flights, disrupting plans for thousands of holiday travellers.
After Sunwing cancelled their Dec. 21 return flight, Mohammad Jazayeri and his wife Setareh Sajadi were stuck at their resort in Puerto Vallarta for six extra days.
Jazayeri said the couple spent most of that time waiting for hours in the hotel lobby for word on a rebooked flight.
"The communication was horrible," said Jazayeri, who lives in North Vancouver, B.C. "It was a nightmare.… We didn't know what's going to happen [to] us."
Desperate to get home, the couple eventually gave up on Sunwing and paid an added $1,544 out-of-pocket for a return flight on another airline.
Following his experience, Jazayeri believes the airline's fine is not high enough to have any impact.
"This is kind of a joke because $126,000 means nothing," he said. "I think they should be fined in the amount that they can relive the pain of all the impacted customers."
$200 per infraction
According to the CTA, Flair Airlines and WestJet committed the most violations related to flight disruptions. WestJet is set to purchase Sunwing in the coming weeks in a merger deal.
Flair was fined $39,000 for 40 violations for failing to provide compensation to passengers for flight delays last summer.
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Flair also received a $28,000 fine for 144 violations for not providing compensation for a flight disruption or an explanation why it was denied within 30 days. The violations occurred between December 2021 and July 2022. The $28,000 fine works out to about $200 per infraction.
"Two hundred dollars doesn't really cut it," said Jack.
WestJet was fined $11,000 for 55 counts for the same violation back in January 2022 — which also works out to $200 per infraction. The airline was then fined $112,800 for 122 counts of the same violation between July, 2022 and early January.
Sunwing did not reply to requests for comment. WestJet and Flair airlines said they abide by the APPR. WestJet added that due to the scope of some flight disruptions, it has been challenging at times to respond to compensation requests within 30 days, and that the CTA has allowed no room for flexibility.
Law professor Matt Malone said the CTA needs to use all the tools it has to step up enforcement.
"The fines that the Canadian Transportation Agency can give out are intended to bring companies into compliance with the regulations. That's not really happening," said Malone, an assistant professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C.
The CTA can issue a maximum penalty of $25,000 per violation.
Agency spokesperson Tom Oommen said the fine amounts are based on their impact on travellers, and that it's standard practice to issue smaller fines for first offences.
"Clearly, we've signalled to the airlines that we're paying attention and … when we observe violations, they will be punished," he said.
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Oommen said that instead of fines, the main focus of the quasi-judicial CTA is to resolve passenger complaints — so wronged travellers can get compensation.
"So we don't need the power of fines to make sure that the airlines are doing right by the passengers."
However, passengers opting to file a complaint are in for a long wait as the CTA has a backlog of more than 40,000 grievances.
"Justice delayed is justice denied," said Jack "This whole system is on life support right now. It's not functioning the way it was supposed to."
Jazayeri received $500 compensation from Sunwing for his flight disruption, but says the airline never responded to requests for reimbursement for his rebooked flight. So he filed a complaint last month with the CTA. In an email, the agency told him the wait may be more than 18 months.
"This number is scary for everyone," Jazayeri said. "What is exactly the problem?"
On Tuesday, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced $75.9 million in additional funding over three years for the CTA. He said the funds will be used to hire 200 employees who will focus exclusively on processing passenger complaints.
Ottawa gave the CTA $11 million last year for the same purpose, but the backlog only got bigger.
As a further measure, Alghabra said the government will introduce tougher air passenger protection regulations in the spring.