Saturday,  February 4, 2023  11:02 am

“No traveller should have to sleep on the floor”: Ottawa talks passenger rights; complaints backlog swells

“No traveller should have to sleep on the floor”: Ottawa talks passenger rights; complaints backlog swells
Travellers pass through Toronto Pearson airport. (File photo/Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

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 Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

“No traveller should have to sleep on the floor of an airport or feel unsafe as a result of a flight that is delayed or cancelled. This is unacceptable,” wrote federal officials on Wednesday (Aug. 10) in a press release, one of many updates the government has shared in recent weeks to address airport wait times and flight delays. 

Amid ongoing reports of flight cancellations at Toronto Pearson airport, and of stranded passengers being handed mats to sleep on the floor as a result, the Government of Canada is urging Canadians to know their rights under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations. 

As of Sept. 8, 2022, amendments to the regulations will come into force to ensure passengers are compensated for flight delays, cancellations, and “other incidents that may be out of an air carrier's control.”

“These rules cover compensation requirements for all flight incidents that are considered within an air carrier's control, including flights delayed or cancelled as a result of crew shortages,” the government said Wednesday. “Through each part of their travel journey, passengers should document any incidents that occur as they may be eligible for compensation.”

“Travellers have rights, and these must be respected by airlines and airports through each step of the travelling experience.”

Travellers at Toronto Pearson airport. (File photo/Pax Global Media)

The remarks come days after CBC News reported on an incident whereby air travellers were given yoga mats to sleep on at Toronto Pearson late at night after an Air Canada flight to Winnipeg was cancelled.

The report claims that customers were left stranded after their flights were repeatedly delayed on Saturday, and ultimately cancelled after midnight on Sunday (Aug. 7).

Impacted travellers interviewed for the story say they were handed mats to sleep on after it became clear that there were no hotels available nearby.

READ MORE: New refund rules will "close the gap" in the air passenger protection, says CTA CEO

According to Air Canada, one of the flights was delayed due to a maintenance issue, which exempts an airline from having to reimburse passengers under the Airline Passenger Protection Regulations.

The reason why all of the other flights on Saturday were cancelled isn’t clear.

Safety first?

The cancellations once again highlight the issue of compensation for air travellers who encounter flight disruptions.

Under air passenger regulations, airlines do not have to compensate travellers for cancellations due to safety concerns, but delays linked to staffing shortages are eligible for compensation up to $1,000.

READ MORE: Toronto Pearson again ranks no. 1 in delays worldwide

Carriers such as Air Canada and WestJet had been labelling some flight disruptions caused by crew shortages as a “safety'' issue and thus ineligible for compensation claims under the regulations.

In a Dec. 29 memo, Air Canada, for example, instructed employees to classify flight cancellations caused by staff shortages as a "safety" problem, which would exclude travellers from compensation, the Canadian Press reported.

But Air Canada has since denied the suggestion that it is applying a blanket approach to cancellations, noting that each flight is assessed on its own merit.

The debate over what constitutes a “safety” problem has been highlighted in mainstream media in recent weeks as reports of passengers being denied compensation for cancelled flights circulate.

READ MORE: Pearson seeing fewer flight delays, shorter wait times for baggage, says GTAA CEO

One side views the safety excuse as a policy loophole that relieves airlines of their duty to compensate passengers, whereas others have defended carriers for making safety a top priority.

(Shutterstock/Vietnam Stock Images).

As former Chief Operating Officer of Air Canada Duncan Dee told CTV News on Aug. 8, airlines cannot force their crew to work overtime for safety reasons.

“You can’t force a crew member, beyond their duty day limit, to work a flight to keep it on time,” said Dee. “You can delay that flight, or you can cancel that flight. You really don’t have a choice. So, it becomes a safety issue. You can't just tell crew members, who are at the end of their duty day, to continue working to keep a flight going.”

The updated air passenger regulations coming Sept. 8 will apply to future flights that are cancelled for reasons outside an air carrier’s control, including major weather events, a pandemic, as well as situations where it is not possible for the carrier to complete the passenger’s itinerary within a reasonable timeframe.

The new rules “provide clarity around timing, cost coverage, method of payment, and deadlines to refund travellers in such situations,” said Transport Minister Omar Alghabra in June. 

The changes allow customers to 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.

Large carriers will also be required to put customers on competitors’ planes.

READ MOREACTA launches Trip & Luggage Compensation tool to support travel agents

It’s a hot-button subject that only adds to the complexities of the current air travel experience, which, for months now, has been plagued with operational setbacks as understaffed airlines, airports and federal agencies grapple with a surge in demand.

In Canada, the House of Commons transport committee recently voted unanimously to launch an investigation into airport delays and flight cancellations, a decision that will see Minister Alghabra testify and explain the crisis before the end of this month.

Passenger complaints mount

Meanwhile, air passenger complaints are piling up and the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) can’t keep up as it, too, is struggling with a staffing shortage.  

The CTA’s complaint backlog swelled to more than 15,300 in May and, in the last month, it has risen further, according to Tom Oommen, director general of analysis at the CTA, sharing details in a recent interview with the Canadian Press. 

READ MORE: House of Commons transport committee to investigate airport delays, flight cancellations

Oommen said it’s possible the CTA will soon receive more than 15,000 new complaints, topping 12,158 new complaints from the past 12 months.

Despite the flood of complaints, the CTA has not yet issued any fines related to passenger compensation claims for flight delays and cancellations, as it was recently revealed

It's assumed that many complaints will sit in limbo, for a while, as worker retention remains an issue for the Gatineau, QC-based regulator.

It takes about 19 business days to resolve a complaint once it reaches an agency facilitator and it can take up to a year before that file lands on someone’s desk, Oommen said.  

“We are hiring,'' Oommen told CP. “But people are always looking for other opportunities and places to leverage their knowledge. It's kind of an employee's market these days.''

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