Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said a lot of things about air passenger rights last week, but perhaps the most eyebrow-raising point he made – besides a commitment to spend $75.9M on clearing the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA)’s backlog of complaints – was just how backed up the agency is.
The CTA, a quasi-judicial agency, has been (slowly) processing complaints from air travellers ever since Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR) was introduced in 2019.
The agency is supposed to enforce rules that require an airline to compensate passengers whenever a flight is delayed or cancelled for a reason that is within the airline's control.
READ MORE: Canadians unhappy with lengthy air passenger complaint process, survey says
Airlines must also refund passengers for cancellations and lengthy delays if customers can't be rebooked on another available flight within 48 hours — even when the airline is not at fault
Air travel, coming out of COVID, has not been so smooth, however. The CTA’s mountain of files rose to more than 30,000 by the end of November 2022 after a stressful summer of flight disruptions that occurred due to a combo of high demand and understaffed airports.
During the slower fall months, one might have believed the CTA was making a dent in their backlog. But after a turbulent holiday travel season, complaints shot back up, whipping the CTA with a “record” number of new cases, Alghabra said.
42,000 cases (and counting?)
The Transport Minister, speaking to media at Toronto Pearson last Tuesday, revealed that the CTA’s backlog now sits at 42,000 cases – “the last time I checked” – more than tripling the number of cases that have been submitted over the past year.
READ MORE: CTA slaps penalties on WestJet & Sunwing for APPR violations
Alghabra said the near $76 million Ottawa will spend on clearing the backlog – an amount that gives the CTA $25 million more per year – will go towards hiring a workforce of some 200 more employees at the CTA, which, Alghabra said, will “significantly” increase the agency’s complaint processing power.
The National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC), last week, welcomed the funding, calling it a "first step."
But President and CEO Jeff Morrison also called for a long-term solution rooted in "permanent policy improvements to ensure that the entire air travel ecosystem is properly funded so it works effectively."
And, "to hold all participants accountable so Canadian air travellers can have confidence that their journey is predictable and timely."
The Minister couldn’t say just how long it would take for the CTA to process all of those complaints, but it’s safe to assume it won’t happen overnight.
Each case apparently needs more than a year and a half to process, sparking criticism from politicians who are questioning the whole system.
As reported by the Canadian Press, NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach will table a private member's bill on Monday (May 20) that aims to close loopholes, increase fines and make compensation automatic for travellers whose flights are delayed or cancelled.
One “loophole” that is being addressed pertains to the APPR – airlines, currently, can cite safety-related issues as a reason for flight cancellations and, in turn, skirt compensating passengers (it's alleged).
READ MORE: Ottawa announces $75.9M to tackle air passenger complaints backlog, pledges to close “loophole”
Alghabra, last week, vowed to re-work the legislation.
“We are working on strengthening and clarifying the rules…obviously we don’t want planes to fly when it’s unsafe to do so. But there are certain things that are within the control of the airlines,” he said.
That's expected to be one part of new, beefed-up APPR legislation, which the Minister said is coming this spring.
It appears the plan is to strengthen rules so complaints against airlines are settled before they reach the CTA.
Alghabra cited an “asymmetry of power” that airlines have over passengers and said the government is working to “rebalance” that power.
The update comes as Canadians are becoming increasingly frustrated with the time it takes for the CTA to resolve a complaint.
Earlier this month, CBC News, through an access to information request, obtained four client satisfaction surveys conducted by the CTA and the results show a rising level of dissatisfaction with air passenger compensation rules.
A 2019 survey shows that 25 per cent of passengers were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the time it took for the CTA to process their complaint.
That number jumped to 71 per cent in the 2022 survey, according to the report.
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