Airlines shouldn’t be the only ones held responsible for delays and cancellations.
This has been WestJet’s argument ever since the carrier, alongside Air Canada and Sunwing, was hauled into a parliamentary hearing in January to testify about the disruptions that left Canadian travellers scrambling over the winter holidays.
Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR) are due for a reform this spring, and WestJet’s leadership, for some time now, has been calling on Ottawa to address what it calls a “glaring gap” in consumer protection.
As Andy Gibbons, WestJet's VP of government relations and regulatory affairs, told MPs at that tense meeting in January, it’s that “your delay or cancellation can be caused by many groups, yet only airlines have regulations governing our activities.”
Improved accountability across Canada’s aviation ecosystem will only improve service for customers, he said.
“It's always the airline”
WestJet’s CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech alluded to this point again on Wednesday (April 12) in Calgary at a Chamber of Commerce event, saying that other players should be involved when it comes to compensation costs for inconvenienced air travellers.
As reported by the Canadian Press, the Calgary-based airline is asking Ottawa to allow airlines to recover costs from other aviation-related partners.
von Hoensbroech supports APPR legislation, which states how airlines must communicate and reimburse or compensate customers for delayed or cancelled flights or for damaged luggage.
But the CEO believes airlines aren’t the only ones to blame.
“There's airports, there's navigation, there's security, there's border control, there's ground handlers," von Hoensbroech told reporters, noting that those departments aren’t subject to the same regulations as airlines.
“Whatever happens, it's always the airline, and the airline basically becomes the insurance company for the entire industry,” he said. “If you want an aviation sector that collectively produces a reliable product for our guests, then there has to be some shared accountability.''
It isn’t known exactly how much WestJet has paid out in passenger compensation in the last year, but von Hoensbroech said the amount was a “significant double-digit millions figure.”
This is one reason why airlines increase fares, he said.
“There is a time lag between these things, but eventually we will have to factor the costs into the ticket price, of course,'' the CEO said. “Because in the end we have to recover all our costs, including compensation."
Ottawa weighs in
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has vowed several times to strengthen air passenger protection regulations so complaints against airlines are settled before they reach the heavily-backlogged CTA.
Last month, Ottawa announced $75.9 million in additional funding to ensure the CTA has the resources to address passenger rights complaints.
The money will be delivered over three years, starting in 2023-24, Alghabra said.
It comes as the high number of flight disruptions over the last few months, including the chaos that took place over the holidays, has resulted in a “record-number of complaints” to the CTA, Alghabra told reporters on March 14.
At the time, Alghabra said the CTA’s backlog sat at 42,000 files.
The new funding will go towards hiring roughly 200 more employees at the CTA, which Alghabra said will “significantly” increase the agency’s complaint processing power.
And new APPR legislation is expected this spring.
“Travellers have rights, and these rights must be respected by airlines,” Alghabra said. “When airlines do not provide the reimbursement or compensation to which travellers are entitled, the Canadian Transportation Agency is there to ensure passenger rights are respected.”
While details are scarce, it appears the plan is to strengthen the rules so complaints against airlines are settled before they reach the CTA.
Von Hoensbroech, on Wednesday, said he heard the government was looking at a concept that includes sharing the costs of compensating travellers with whatever party caused the problem, but he didn't have any information to share.
Meanwhile, Canadians are becoming increasingly frustrated with the time it takes for the CTA to resolve a complaint.
These files seem to move at a glacial pace. The CTA told a parliamentary committee last November that it can take as long as 18 months to resolve a case.
The CTA, a quasi-judicial agency, has been dealing with air passenger complaints ever since Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations were introduced in 2019.