Canadians whose travel plans have been derailed by flight delays or cancellations say they are losing patience with the agency responsible for enforcing compensation rules.
The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), a quasi-judicial body and regulator tasked with resolving disputes between airlines and customers, has been dealing with a backlog of air passenger complaints since new rules came into effect in 2019 requiring airlines to compensate passengers when a flight delayed or canceled for reasons beyond the control of the airline.
But that gap has widened dramatically over the past few months as the hectic summer travel season has led to more customers claim airlines are circumventing federal compensation rules.
The CTA said the number of outstanding complaints has risen to 18,200 after a surge in new complaints filed in recent months. The agency said that 7,500 new complaints were filed between April and July this year, more than half the number of complaints received in all of last year.
“CTA continues to deal with air passenger complaints as quickly as possible, based on their merits, impartially and rigorously,” the agency said in a statement.
But those who recently filed new complaints can wait a long time for a response from the agency.
Michelle Jacobs waited almost a year before getting a response from the CTA, and when she did, it was only to confirm that she was filing on behalf of her two children. She filed the complaint in August 2021 after Air Canada canceled the family’s flight from Deer Lake, Nevada to Toronto, citing staffing issues.
“It’s frustrating,” she said of the CTA process, “I mean there are laws made for this kind of thing and it seems like they’re really holding you back to see if you leave.”
Jacobs said she considered dropping the CTA complaint, but after being contacted by the agency last week, she was hopeful that the investigation into the case was ongoing.
Kevin Smith, who has been fighting Flair Airlines for compensation after the first flight from Vancouver to Ottawa on New Year’s Eve was canceled and rebooked the next day, says he’s running out of patience with CTA.
Smith said he filed a complaint with the agency in early February but has yet to receive a response.
While he is disappointed that Flair keeps denying him what he says will be fair compensation, he said the CTA’s lack of response “makes things worse”.
“You can’t rely on enforcement, laws are basically meaningless and it’s like the wild, wild west,” he said.
Smith said instead of waiting for a response from the CTA, he is now considering taking Flair to small claims court, which Gabor Lukács, founder and president of Air Passengers Rights Canada, has begun recommending to passengers who contact him.
“The judge may agree or disagree with them, but they will get a fair and impartial hearing, which is much more than they can expect from the agency,” Lukács said.
While the CTA said it has been able to process complaints faster in recent years, it is currently facing a shortage of staff and is trying to recruit more facilitators who can help resolve complaints. The government has provided CTA funding in recent years to address the backlog, including $11 million in the April budget.
When questioned by the CBC, Transportation Minister Omar Algabra did not say if the government was willing to do more so the CTA could address the backlog and instead said that airlines must abide by the rules.
“Travelers are also entitled to a refund and must be respected,” Algabra said in an emailed statement.
But conservative transport critic Melissa Lantsman believes air passenger protection needs to be strengthened because Canadians are currently bearing the brunt of a weak system.
“Whether it’s a CTA, whether it’s a government, whether it’s an airline, there’s a total disclaimer,” Lantzman said.
NDP transport critic Taylor Bahrak agreed that rules and enforcement needed to be strengthened and argued that the fact that there are so many complaints is primarily evidence that airlines believe they can get away with breaking the rules.
“The biggest problem is that airlines are making fun of these rules to protect air passengers,” he said.
Both Lantsman and Barchrah said the government needs to give the agency the resources it needs to compensate passengers, but Lukács said the CTA also needs to step up enforcement, imposing more fines when an airline violates rules.
Under CTA rules, airlines can face fines of up to $25,000 per incident each time they violate air passenger protection rules, which Lukács says the agency doesn’t use often enough.
“If airlines knew they were facing huge fines for every violation, they wouldn’t have gone this far,” he said.
The CTA recently announced new rules that require airlines to provide compensation or rebooking, even if the delay or cancellation is not within their control. Lukács said the new rules, coming into effect on September 8, could widen the gap.
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