This article was updated on Thursday, September 8 at 2:32 p.m. EST
New protections for air travellers kick in today (Sept. 8) as the Canadian Transport Agency (CTA) tries to close a loophole that left some passengers unable to get refunds during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic when thousands of flights were cancelled.
Airlines will now have to refund passengers for cancellations and lengthy delays if customers can't be rebooked on another available flight within 48 hours — even when those cancellations or delays are not the fault of the airlines themselves.
The update amends Canada’s existing Air Passenger Protection Regulations. Since 2019, The Liberals’ bill of rights for air travel have required carriers to compensate passengers for delayed or cancelled flights when disruptions happen for reasons the airlines themselves can control.
Now, refunds will happen even if cancellations or delays are not the fault of the airline. The new rules, for instance, will cover other situations, such as weather delays or labour conflicts.
Refunds must be provided within 30 days and the ticket price may also be reimbursed through credit or vouchers.
Officials are attempting to close a gap that was exposed during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 when airlines began cancelling flights and denying refunds to customers.
The updated regulations aims to “ensure that even when cancellations and lengthy delays occur that are outside the airline’s control, passengers will be protected if the airline cannot complete their itinerary within a reasonable period of time,” as France Pégeot, CEO the CTA, explained in June, when the changes were announced.
The tweaked regulations also apply to situations where it is not possible for an airline to complete a passenger’s itinerary within a reasonable timeframe.
Travellers can now choose between a refund or another flight that leaves within 48 hours on the airline in question, or a partner airline, at no additional cost.
“Whether due to a large-scale cancellation or a small incident, we know that sometimes travel doesn’t go according to plan,” stated Transport Minister Omar Alghabra in June. “These new regulations will protect travellers in these unexpected situations.”
Earlier this week, in an interview with CBC News, Tom Oommen, director general of the analysis and outreach branch at the CTA, called the update a “win for passengers.”
Minister Alghabra issued a statement on Thursday, saying that "passengers have rights and they need to be respected."
"The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a gap in Canada's passenger protection framework, with flights delayed or cancelled due to situations outside an airline's control and where carriers could not rebook passengers within a reasonable time, like a global pandemic. These new regulations will correct this gap," he said.
"These new requirements provide clarity around timing, cost coverage, method of payment, and deadlines to refund travellers in such situations. They were developed in a manner that is fair and reasonable to passengers, with the goal of not imposing an undue financial burden on air carriers that could result in higher travel costs."
Airlines unfairly singled out?
But not everyone is welcoming the changes.
As Jeff Morrison, president and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC), told the National Post last month, the new rules put pressure on airlines at a time when the sector is facing intense challenges.
WestJet has also voiced its opposition to the new system, arguing that airlines shouldn’t be singled out as the only point of accountability when multiple parties play a role in providing a seamless travel experience.
This was seen over the summer at Canadian airports as international travellers – at Toronto Pearson, especially – faced delays at security checkpoint and customs.
Multiple departments had to step up to resolve several inefficiencies.
WestJet’s vice-president of government relations, Andrew Gibbons, shared remarks when the new regulations were first announced, telling the Globe and Mail that WestJet was “disappointed” that the new rules unfairly makes it the “sole provider of reimbursement” for delays it cannot control.
The airline believes federal agencies like the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority and the Canada Border Services Agency, as well as airports, should all be involved in air passenger protections.
The 48-hour window
One consumer advocate says the rules don’t go far enough.
The 48-hour window, specifically, is up for debate as it leaves a gap for passengers who, for example, may be travelling for short periods of time.
As Sylvie De Bellefeuille, a lawyer with the Quebec-based advocacy group Option consommateurs recently pointed out, if a passenger was intending to fly on a Friday to attend a function on a Saturday, but the flight is cancelled, the airline could rebook the passenger for a flight on Sunday and not have to refund the ticket.
Which would be useless to the passenger who missed their event on Saturday.
A spokesperson for Minister Alghabra's office recently told CBC that airlines were, indeed, consulted on the updated regulations.
"These regulations are in place to protect travellers and to hold airlines accountable," Alghabra's office said in a separate statement.