Politics

Why the flood of air traveller complaints has resulted in few fines against the airlines

Experts are calling on the agency responsible for enforcing air passenger protection rules to be more aggressive with fines when airlines run afoul of those regulations.

Canadian Transportation Agency says it hasn't issued fines to airlines for failing to compensate passengers

A sign shows a list of flights.
A screen shows cancelled and delayed flights at the Ottawa International Airport on Dec. 23, 2022. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Experts are calling on the agency responsible for enforcing air passenger protection rules to be more aggressive with fines when airlines run afoul of those regulations.

The quasi-judicial Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) has the ability to fine airlines up to $25,000 if they don't comply with air passenger protection regulations that came into force in 2019. Those rules require an airline to compensate passengers for lost luggage or flight delays and cancellations that are within the airline's control.

But earlier this month, the head of the CTA told the House of Commons transport committee that the agency hasn't levied a single fine for failing to compensate passengers.

These are the compensation amounts for flight delays that are within the airline's control and are not safety-related. The amount depends on how late the passenger arrives at their destination, compared to the arrival time indicated on their original ticket. (cbc)

Tom Oommen, director general of the CTA's analysis and outreach branch, said that instead of fining airlines, the agency has focused on resolving passenger complaints.

"Resolving passenger complaints puts compensation, puts refunds, put entitlements in the pockets of passengers," Oommen told CBC. "Our enforcement regime doesn't do that. The fines don't go to the passengers."

But the agency is grappling with a backlog of more than 30,000 complaints from passengers who believe they weren't properly compensated.

Ian Jack, a spokesperson for the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), a non-profit travel agency, said the backlog offers an incentive for airlines to challenge passengers' compensation claims.

"It sends a signal to the airlines when it takes this long to get a decision that they don't necessarily have to get things right today. They can afford to wait,"  Jack said.

Jack said the CTA should use fines to push airlines to follow compensation rules. John Gradek, an aviation management professor at McGill University, agrees.

"They won't be playing games because they know as soon as they start playing games they'll get slapped pretty hard with fines," Gradek said.

The CTA has issued some fines for violations of the 2019 rules — about two dozen, totalling $171,400. Oommen said the CTA has issued few fines in part because the 2019 rules are relatively new.

According to the penalties listed on the CTA's website, most of those fines were for failing to properly display certain charges when a passenger purchases a ticket, or for not properly displaying information about the compensation rules.

Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.
Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra said he is looking to strengthen air passenger protection regulations that came into force in 2019. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

A handful of fines have been levied against airlines for failing to provide food or drink to passengers during lengthy flight delays, for offering inadequate information about delays or cancellations, and for not responding to passengers' requests for compensation within the required 30-day time limit.

Some airlines have been fined as little as $200 for individual offences.

Oommen said the CTA uses a gradual approach to finable violations — small fines are issued for first-time violations, which are doubled for subsequent violations.

Gradek said the agency should be imposing maximum fines of $25,000 to ensure airlines comply. He said the fines the CTA has doled out so far amount to "a slap on the wrist ... a mosquito bite."

"Nobody's paying attention to that," he said.

But Jack said the government should consider changing the rules to allow the CTA to issue even higher fines.

"The CTA right now doesn't have any big sticks to threaten people with. It has a bunch of little twigs," he said.

Earlier this month, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said he's looking to strengthen air passenger protection regulations in response to the travel chaos that occurred over the holidays. CBC asked his office if that could include giving the CTA the ability to issue higher fines.

"All options are on the table to ensure that what happened over the holidays with Sunwing does not happen again," a statement from his office said.

NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach said he would support higher fines.

"We need to take a serious look at the way that fines are being used and whether the maximum fines are adequate to serve as a deterrent," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Major

CBC Journalist

Darren Major is a senior writer for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He can be reached via email darren.major@cbc.ca or by tweeting him @DMajJourno.

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