Business

WestJet launches legal battle to overturn order to compensate passenger $1,000

WestJet has launched a legal battle, seeking to overturn a Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) ruling that ordered the airline to compensate a passenger $1,000 for a flight disruption caused by a crew shortage.

Airline says transport regulator misinterpreted the rules when ordering it to pay up

WestJet filed a motion in the Federal Court of Appeal to appeal a CTA ruling that it pay a passenger $1,000 in compensation for a cancelled flight. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

WestJet has launched a legal battle, seeking to appeal a Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) ruling that ordered the airline to compensate a passenger $1,000 for a flight disruption caused by a crew shortage.

When issuing its ruling in July, the CTA clarified that, in general, airlines can't deny passengers compensation for flight disruptions caused by staffing shortages. 

In a motion filed in the Federal Court of Appeal on Aug. 10, WestJet argues that the CTA's ruling was flawed, because it was based on a misinterpretation of Canada's Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR). The court has yet to decide if WestJet can proceed with its appeal. 

Consumer advocate John Lawford said if WestJet gets the green light and is victorious, it may pave the way for all airlines to justifiably deny compensation based on any flight disruption caused by staffing shortages.

"It would give the companies a pretty clear right," said Lawford, a lawyer and executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

Lawford also suggested WestJet's request to appeal the CTA's ruling is indicative of where the airlines stand on Canada's air passenger compensation rules. 

"The airlines are trying to interpret those regulations in a very aggressive sense so that they can, in effect, carve themselves out an exception to paying whenever they can," he said. "That's in their financial best interests."

The WestJet case

Following numerous complaints from air passengers that they were unfairly denied compensation, the CTA ruling in July was supposed to help clear the air on compensation regulations. 

The ruling was based on a case involving passenger Owen Lareau who was set to take a WestJet flight on July 18, 2021 from Regina back home to Ottawa. 

According to court documents, Lareau's flight was cancelled 1.5 hours before departure. He was rebooked on a flight the following day and arrived at his destination 21 hours later than originally scheduled. 

WestJet denied Lareau compensation, stating in an email that his "flight was impacted due to flight crew member availability and required for safety purposes."

Public Interest Advocacy Centre executive director John Lawford says Ottawa needs to amend air passenger protection regulations so that there's less wiggle room for airlines to deny compensation. (CBC)

According to the APPR, 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. 

In its ruling, the CTA stated that crew shortages are considered within the airline's control and can't be classified as a safety issue, unless an airline can prove otherwise. 

The federal transport regulator said that WestJet "did not sufficiently establish" that the flight cancellation "was unavoidable despite proper planning."

However, in its motion for an appeal, WestJet argues that, according to the APPR, the CTA can't presume crew shortages warrant compensation and then put the onus on airlines to disprove it.

Lawford said WestJet is offering a narrow reading of the rules, and that the CTA ruling in July set out to clarify them.

"[The airline is] saying, 'That's nice, the actual wording of the regulations is all we will follow and we're going to court.'"

WestJet, its lawyers involved in the case, the Canadian Transportation Agency and passenger Lareau each declined to comment on the case which is before the courts. 

Open to interpretation

WestJet isn't the only airline facing customer wrath over denied compensation involving staffing issues. 

Several passengers have complained to CBC News that Air Canada unfairly denied them compensation by stating that their flight disruption caused by "crew constraints" was "safety related." 

Air Canada said last week it abides by the APPR and that the regulations are complex and open to interpretation.

Lawford agrees and said the federal government needs to amend the rules so there is no wiggle room.

"Our rules for the airline passenger protection regulations leave too much room for interpretation to the airlines," he said. "They honestly aren't clear on what's within control or not within control of the airlines."

WATCH | Travellers say they're being unfairly denied compensation: 

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

4 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.

Lawford also said that Transport Minister Omar Alghabra should send a message to the airlines to take a more "consumer friendly" approach to the rules. 

"I don't see that kind of leadership out of the present minister at all," he said.

During a transport committee hearing on Friday, Alghabra said that "airlines must respect travellers' rights" and that the CTA is responsible for dealing with passenger complaints.

Passengers can file a complaint with the agency which aims to help them resolve the matter.

Since May, the CTA has received more than 7,000 complaints related to flight disruptions and currently has a backlog of more than 18,000 air passenger grievances on all topics combined. 

To date, the agency has issued no fines involving compensation for flight disruptions, but suggested in an email on Monday that they may be coming. 

"As more complaints are adjudicated ... enforcement officers will have a stronger basis for issuing notices of violation and [fines]," said a CTA spokesperson. 

Despite the potential long wait for a resolution, Lawford said he still encourages unhappy passengers to file complaints with the CTA

"It's annoying and it takes extra time, but it's what consumers can do."

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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