More complaints Air Canada, WestJet unfairly denying passengers compensation
Transport regulator says it may issue fines to non-compliant airlines
Lesley Lowe believes Air Canada isn't playing by the rules.
Last month, the airline cancelled her return flight to Toronto from New Orleans — five hours before she was set to depart. Her rebooked flight didn't leave until the following day.
Following her trip, Lowe applied for compensation for the delay, and the $394 US she spent on a hotel plus added expenses.
Air Canada responded that Lowe didn't qualify for any cash. Instead, the airline sent her an email — seen by CBC News — that described the challenges the company faces due to a recent surge in travel, including long line-ups, baggage processing issues and flight delays.
But the email omitted an important detail: why Lowe's flight cancellation didn't warrant compensation.
"I think they don't have a valid reason," said Lowe who lives in Whitby, Ont. "I think that if they were to really be honest and transparent as to what happened … they know that they'd be liable and they'd have to compensate the passengers on the flight."
Lowe is one of many air passengers who, during this summer of mass flight delays and cancellations, claim they were unfairly denied compensation by their airline.
The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) has yet to confirm if it will take action against non-compliant airlines — despite calls from air passenger rights experts that it's time to issue harsh penalties.
"These [air passenger regulations] are not actually being properly enforced in a rigorous manner," said Daniel Tsai, a consumer advocate and Toronto-based business lawyer.
Under federal rules, airlines only have to pay compensation — up to $1,000 — if a flight delay or cancellation is within an airline's control and not required for safety reasons. Carriers must also cover accommodation costs for flight disruptions within their control.
WestJet and Air Canada first sparked customer fury after they continued to deny compensation for some flight disruptions caused by crew shortages — despite a recent CTA clarification that staff shortages are generally within an airline's control and warrant compensation.
Now, some passengers are speaking out about another concern: airlines not providing an adequate explanation about why they were denied compensation.
Appalled with the customer service <a href="https://twitter.com/WestJet?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@WestJet</a> - a delayed flight caused us to miss our connection adding 9 hours onto our travel day! Not eligible for compensation as apparently reason out of their control? Yet no reason for extensive delays were provided!—@julia5chmidt
<a href="https://twitter.com/AirCanada?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@AirCanada</a> we've requested compensation for delayed flights and just received a reply that the "delay was caused by an event outside of our control". A request for more information has had no reply for about a month! Hard to understand when the next day the same flight was OK!—@The__Fed
According to the CTA, airlines must explain in "sufficient detail" the reasons for a flight disruption, including why it doesn't warrant compensation.
But Lowe said Air Canada never provided an explanation, even when she wrote back and demanded one.
"They just closed my case," she said. They "don't respect me as a customer to even respond to my query."
A 'foggy' explanation
Shakheel Bhatti of Mississauga, Ont., is still waiting for a clear reason why WestJet denied him compensation for a three-hour delay, when flying from Vancouver to Toronto in June.
In an email seen by CBC News, WestJet's only explanation was that the disruption "was due to a delay after departure that was outside WestJet's control." But according to flight tracking service, FlightAware, the delay happened prior to departure.
"The facts are not aligning with what WestJet is saying," said Bhatti.
On top of that, WestJet never explained why the delay was outside its control.
"You can't really challenge something that's so foggy," said Bhatti. "I think it's obstructive on a justice level for anybody to give you that sort of vague, foggy, nondescript response."
Both WestJet and Air Canada declined to comment on individual cases. They each told CBC News they follow federal air passenger regulations, and pointed out that a 2020 CTA inquiry found no evidence that airlines had deliberately misled passengers when denying compensation claims.
"A complaint does not mean wrongdoing by an airline, it is simply a disagreement over the interpretation of these very complex, situational-dependent regulations," said an Air Canada spokesperson in an email. "This is why the CTA has a complaint process."
Passengers who feel they were wrongly denied compensation can file a complaint with the CTA to help get their issue resolved.
The federal transport regulator is currently dealing with a backlog of 18,200 air passenger complaints thanks to a recent spike: In the four months between April and July, the CTA said it received 7,500 new complaints, a significant increase over last year.
Transport Canada spokesperson Laurel Lennox said in an email that the department has given the CTA an additional $11 million to help it clear its backlog in complaint filings and to "make sure airlines are operating within the rules."
That cash injection was first announced in the April 2022 federal budget, and Lennox provided no indication of any new enforcement plans.
To date, the CTA has issued no fines to airlines for wrongly denying compensation. In an interview last week, the agency suggested penalties, including fines, may be coming.
"We are indeed looking at all the enforcement options ... that are available to us," said CTA spokesperson Tom Oommen. He declined to elaborate.
While consumer advocate Daniel Tsai supports issuing fines, he said they may not be much of a deterrent, because the current maximum penalty per violation is $25,000.
"If anything, it's just the cost of doing business for a multi-billion-dollar airline."
Tsai recommends the CTA dole out fines of at least $250,000 per infraction, plus penalties in the millions of dollars for repeat offenders.
"That will really get the airlines thinking before they try to pass off on their responsibilities to consumers," he said.
In its 2020-21 annual report, the CTA also recommended increasing the maximum fine to $250,000 for corporations, stating the current cap "is outdated as it was set in 1996."
With files from Darren Major