Giving sleeping mats to stranded Winnipeg-bound passengers an 'insult' by Air Canada: advocate
Air Canada says flight delay due to mechanical problem, passengers ineligible for compensation
Airline industry watchers are calling out Air Canada for its treatment of passengers who were given mats to sleep on at Toronto Pearson International Airport after their flight to Winnipeg was cancelled.
"It's an insult to passengers," said Gabor Lukacs, president of Air Passenger Rights, which advocates for airline customers in Canada.
CBC reported that several passenger were left stranded after their flights were repeatedly delayed on Saturday, and ultimately cancelled just after midnight on Sunday.
According to Air Canada, one of the flights was delayed due to a maintenance issue, which exempts the airline from obligation to reimburse passengers under the Airline Passenger Protection Regulations, but Lukacs says the requirement to provide accommodation still applies.
"I'm sure there are hotels in Toronto," he said.
"They may not be as cheap as the airline may wish, but they still have to foot the bill because that's the law whether you like it or not."
A spokesperson for the office of the Transport Minister Omar Alghabra called the situation "completely unacceptable."
"No traveller, under any circumstances, should have to sleep on the floor of an airport or feel unsafe," the spokesperson said in an email statement.
The federal department also expects Air Canada to respect passenger's rights, and uphold their refund responsibilities.
Air Canada hasn't provided any additional information today as to why all of the flights on Saturday were cancelled, or which rights passengers have in seeking compensation.
One passenger who spoke to CBC News questioned the airline's explanation that the delay was related to a mechanical problem.
"They say it was a maintenance issue, but some of the passenger, like people who were supposed to board the plane, said that it was a flight crew issue, because if it had been a maintenance issue, the flight crew would have left much earlier," said Fatima Sherefa.
"But we saw them leaving exactly as it had been cancelled. So it's not even clear what the exact issue was."
WATCH | Fatima Sherefa shares her experience trying to fly back to Winnipeg:
Under the regulations, airlines do not have to provide compensation for cancellations due to safety concerns, but delays due to staffing shortages are eligible for compensation up to $1,000.
In a Dec. 29 memo, Air Canada instructed employees to classify flight cancellations caused by staff shortages as a "safety" problem, which would exclude travellers from compensation under federal regulations, the Canadian Press reported.
That memo was sent out during the height of Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and was intended to provide guidance to staff and to explain to customers why their flight was cancelled due to crew constraints caused by infections.
"It is not a policy and Air Canada rejects the suggestion it is applying a blanket approach to reasons for cancellations. Each flight cancellation is assessed on its own merit," a company spokesperson said in an email statement.
The Canadian Transportation Agency, which adjudicates compensation claims, issued a ruling in July involving crew shortages issues, which a spokesperson said would provide guidance for future cases.
The decision related to a case involving a man in Regina, whose West Jet flight to Toronto on July 18, 2021, was cancelled after a pilot called in sick one hour before it was scheduled to leave.
The agency determined that the passenger was entitled to $1,000 in compensation.
The spokesperson for Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said new passenger protection regulations are coming into force and stipulate that Canadian airlines must provide refund options to passengers with cancelled or delayed flights for reasons beyond the airlines' control.
Ricard Gil, a professor in the Smith School of Business at Queen's University, said that could provide air passengers with more security when flying.
"If anything, what it does is that's going to remove uncertainty on the passenger's side and hopefully that has a good positive impact on bringing confidence from the air traveller to get on the airplane again, and go places again and help the economy move forward," he said.
Max Johnson, a principal consultant with TTJ Tourism in Winnipeg, offered a less hopeful assessment of the impact of the new regulations in preventing situations like that experienced by the passengers flying to Winnipeg this past weekend.
Unlike in other markets like the European Union, Canada's rules include a caveat that exempts airlines from obligations to pay when the issue is related to safety.
"And while a maintenance issue is theoretically within their control, not doing the maintenance creates a safety issue, which therefore exempt them from compensation."
The Air Canada spokesperson said the rule exempting safety-related issues "properly recognizes that the top priority for any carrier (and customers) is to operate safely and that there should be no penalties for making decisions based on safety."
With files from Joanne Roberts