Business

Customers cry foul as Air Canada, WestJet deny certain compensation claims despite new directive

The Canadian Transportation Agency recently clarified that, in general, airlines can’t deny passengers compensation for flight disruptions caused by crew shortages. However, the clarification has only ignited fury for some passengers who have since been denied compensation — due to crew shortages.

Canadian Transportation Agency says staffing issues generally warrant compensation

Leigh and Frank Michel of Marquis, Sask., were denied compensation by Air Canada after flight disruptions in June left them sleeping on an airport floor. (Frank Michel)

A recent Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) decision was supposed to help clear the air on flight compensation. 

When issuing a decision in a WestJet case on July 8, the transport regulator clarified that, in general, airlines can't deny passengers compensation for flight disruptions caused by crew shortages. 

However, the clarification has only ignited fury for some passengers, including Frank Michel, who have since been denied compensation — due to crew shortages.

"It's insulting," said Michel, of Marquis, Sask.

He and his wife, Leigh, flew with Air Canada in June. The couple's flight from Regina to Victoria was delayed by more than five hours. Then, the second leg of their return flight was cancelled, so the couple wound up spending the night at the Vancouver airport. 

"I've got arthritis, I'm aching and sore; I'm sleeping on a frigging concrete floor," said Michel, who is 67.

After Air Canada cancelled his flight, Michel, 67, wound up spending the night on the floor of the Vancouver airport. (Frank Michel)

The couple applied for compensation, which would total $2,800 if they qualified. But in late July, Air Canada rejected the Michels' claim. In two separate emails seen by CBC News, the airline said each flight disruption was "due to crew constraints" linked to COVID-19 and was "safety-related." 

Under federal rules, airlines only have to pay compensation — up to $1,000 per passenger — if a flight cancellation or delay is within the airline's control and not required for safety reasons. 

Michel argues Air Canada isn't playing by the rules.

"CTA has already made it clear that crew constraints is not an acceptable excuse," he said. "It's not a safety issue. It's a management issue. You have to manage your resources."

'This decision doesn't seem to mean anything'

The CTA issued its clarification last month based on a case where WestJet denied a customer compensation, claiming his flight had been cancelled for safety reasons due to a crew shortage. 

In its ruling, the CTA confirmed that staffing issues typically warrant compensation because, in general, they are an airline's responsibility and can't be categorized as a safety matter. Thus, the agency ordered WestJet to pay the passenger $1,000. 

"Training and staffing are within airline control and therefore crew shortages are within airline control, unless there's compelling evidence" to the contrary, said CTA spokesperson Tom Oommen in an interview. "It's a high threshold."

WATCH | Air passengers say they've been unfairly denied compensation:

Travellers say they’re being unfairly denied compensation for Air Canada flight cancellations

2 months ago
Duration 2:01
Some travellers say they’re being denied compensation for cancelled Air Canada flights as the airline claims the flight disruptions were 'due to crew constraints' and beyond their control.

Oommen said the CTA's decision will help ensure airlines follow the rules. But some passengers remain skeptical. 

"This decision doesn't seem to mean anything," said Jennifer Peach, of Langley, B.C., who, along with her husband, had booked a trip with WestJet to attend a wedding last month in St. John's.

They almost didn't make it. WestJet cancelled their connecting flight and Peach said the airline then offered to rebook them on a flight one day later — which would mean they'd miss the wedding. 

Fortunately, Peach found a Porter Airlines flight that would get the couple to St. John's about five hours later than originally scheduled, but still in time for the wedding. WestJet told her to book the flight and file for compensation, she said.

Peach asked WestJet for the $773 total she paid for the Porter flight, plus compensation for the couple's delayed trip. On Aug. 2, WestJet turned down both requests. 

In an email seen by CBC News, the airline stated that the flight cancellation "was due to crew member availability and was required for safety purposes." 

That didn't sit well with Peach, especially in light of the recent CTA decision.

"I don't know what's going on here," she said. "I would assume that if there's a decision like this made by the Canadian Transportation Agency that it would be the sort of the benchmark for all of these [claims]."

Enforcement options could include fines: CTA

WestJet and Air Canada each declined to comment on individual cases, but both said they abide by federal air passenger regulations. WestJet said that safety is its top priority. Air Canada said airlines shouldn't be penalized for cancelling flights for safety reasons. 

Air passenger rights expert Ian Jack said the CTA needs to threaten airlines with harsh penalties, such as public shaming and stiff fines, if they fail to comply with compensation regulations. 

"The major concern is that the regulator is not exactly striking fear into the hearts of the carriers to make them follow the rules," said Jack, a spokesperson with the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), a non-profit travel agency. 

"They need to know that they might get caught, embarrassed and called to task by the regulator." 

This graphic shows the compensation air travellers could be entitled to depending on the length of their flight delay. (CBC)

CTA's Oommen suggested that tough penalties, such as fines, may be coming for non-compliant airlines. "We are indeed looking at all the enforcement options ... that are available to us," he said. 

Meanwhile, both Michel and Peach have filed complaints with the CTA. However, they may be in for a long wait. The agency said it's currently dealing with a backlog of roughly 18, 200 complaints.

Oommen said the CTA recently made changes to streamline the complaints process and is trying to hire more staff.

But Jack said he's concerned the big backlog may encourage airlines to flout the rules, because any repercussions will be far down the road. 

"They don't have to pay out today, and who knows, maybe in 2025, they might have to pay money."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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 an Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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