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‘A systemic strategy’: Air Canada customers say claims wrongly denied under new passenger rules

Click to play video 'Thousands of Air Passenger Protection Regulations claims filed' Thousands of Air Passenger Protection Regulations claims filed
Air Canada passenger says her claims were wrongly denied under new passenger rules. Sean O'Shea reports.

Anxious to get home after the holidays, Carla Di Censo and her husband were furious when Air Canada cancelled their flight from Prince George, B.C., to Vancouver less than nine hours before take-off on New Year’s Eve. The disruption caused the couple and their young daughter to miss their connecting flight home to Ottawa.

“We were like, ‘What on earth is happening?’” Di Censo told Global News. “It took several hours to get through and ask [Air Canada] what was the reason for the delay. We were told on the phone: ‘crew constraints.’”
Click to play video 'Air Canada passenger says her claims were wrongly denied under new passenger rules' Air Canada passenger says her claims were wrongly denied under new passenger rules
Air Canada passenger says her claims were wrongly denied under new passenger rules

That information also appears in flight-status screenshots Di Censo provided to Global News.

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As Di Censo’s flight was rescheduled a full 24 hours later, she, her husband and daughter made separate claims to Air Canada for compensation of $1,000 each under the newly created Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR), which lay out airlines’ obligations to passengers for issues like flights disruptions and lost or damaged luggage.

READ MORE: Changes to air passengers’ rights are now in effect. Here’s what you should know

The family’s claims, however, were all initially rejected. In communication seen by Global News, Air Canada justified the denials saying, “the delay was caused by an event outside of our control.” The airline’s message, however, incorrectly referenced a number of flights that, while part of the family’s trip, were not part of the claim.

Di Censo’s story is one of nearly a dozen involving Air Canada passengers who spoke to Global News who said they believe the airline is intentionally mis-referencing flights or misrepresenting the cause of flight delays. They claim Air Canada is doing this to avoid paying compensation under new rules that came into effect in December.

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A screenshot indicating the wrong dates of Di Censo’s flight.
A screenshot indicating the wrong dates of Di Censo’s flight.

Di Censo posted about her experience on Facebook and received messages from other passengers who’d filed similar claims and claimed they received similarly puzzling denials referencing the wrong flights.

“How can somebody make the same mistake over and over again? It just seemed bizarre.”

New rules came into effect on Dec. 15, 2019, mandating that large airlines — like Air Canada, WestJet or Air Transat — must pay between $400 and $1,000 for flights when passengers are delayed by three hours or more. Smaller airlines, like Swoop or Flair, are required to pay anywhere from $125 to $500.

In mid-July, regulators enacted the first phase of APPR, which focused primarily on remedying travel mishaps like tarmac delays, lost baggage and overbooking.

Ten passengers who spoke with Global News provided documents and correspondence with Air Canada that showed flights cancelled or delayed for staffing or scheduling issues, which are considered within an airline’s control and eligible for compensation under the new regulations. All the claims, however, were initially rejected by Air Canada claiming events outside of its control caused the flight disruptions.

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“I mean, it’s very clear to me that it’s an approach that they’re using to avoid having to pay these claims out,” Di Censo said.

Air Canada eventually reversed its decision about Di Censo’s husband, acknowledging that compensation was owed under the APPR. The airline also offered $1,000 each in compensation to Di Censo herself and her daughter but, once again, referenced flights that were unrelated to the APPR claims.

Click to play video 'Next phase of air passenger rights rolls out' Next phase of air passenger rights rolls out
Next phase of air passenger rights rolls out

Di Censo estimates it took her around 50 hours’ worth of phone calls, emails and research for her family to eventually gain compensation and an apology. She worries others may be unfairly denied and not know it.

“This is sort of like a systemic strategy not to pay people,” she said. “I think they’re just trying to confuse [the public] so that we … just sort of back off.”
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Air Canada did not respond to a detailed list of questions about Di Censo’s case or others reported by Global News, but said the airline’s policy is to “fully abide by the APPR.”

“We have put in place the necessary processes and procedures to ensure compliance and are dealing with customers directly,” Air Canada said in a statement. “We have no additional information to offer, but would point out for context that since the APPRs first took effect we have transported more than 25 million customers.”

READ MORE: No-frills ‘nightmares’ — Passengers describe missing refunds and bookings with Canada’s Flair Air

In another case involving a flight to Halifax, Cheryl Yates was initially told that her claim for a Dec. 27 flight home from Boston was ineligible for compensation. Even though Yates had a flight notification reporting crew constraints as the reason for the cancellation, Air Canada claimed the disruption was due to events outside its control.

The airline reversed its decision and acknowledged compensation of $1,000 was owed under APPR after Yates asked air passenger advocate Gabor Lukacs to intervene. The airline also said it would reimburse Yates for $85 for out-of-pocket expenses she’d incurred due to the delay.

In another case, Jesse Saindon and his wife were flying back home to New Brunswick from a vacation in Hawaii that took them from Maui to Vancouver and then on to Montreal. On the final leg of their trip from Montreal to Fredericton, their Feb. 1 flight was cancelled due to “crew constraints.”

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Click to play video 'Passenger bill of rights: First phase of new air travel rules rolling out in Canada' Passenger bill of rights: First phase of new air travel rules rolling out in Canada
Passenger bill of rights: First phase of new air travel rules rolling out in Canada

Air Canada denied his claim for compensation citing “maintenance”. As in several other cases viewed by Global News, the airline’s response does not reference the flight that was part of the complaint.

“You’d think that if it was safety concerns, it would be in the email notifications that we got that it was a mechanical issue,” Saindon told Global News. “It’s pretty frustrating.”

Saindon said he has his “suspicions” about whether Air Canada is intentionally mischaracterizing claims.

“If the crew constraint thing is happening to a lot of people, which it seems to be, they would have to pay out, right? Why would you say crew constraints and then come back with safety issues? Those two things aren’t the same.”

Lukacs said there are two issues at play: an airline that is allegedly avoiding paying out compensations and unclear legislation enacted by federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau.

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“It’s exactly what we predicted. The new rules don’t protect passengers properly and airlines take advantage,” Lukacs told Global News, adding that he’s been warning the government about this for more than two years.

Lukacs noted that compensation for delays or cancellations can be denied for maintenance required for safety purposes, something that creates the potential for airlines to misrepresent minor repairs and routine upkeep as safety-related.

“In Europe, the airlines cannot avoid compensation for claiming maintenance,” he said. “This is where the Canadian legislation misses the mark.”

READ MORE: Canadian airlines hit with $45K in fines in first crackdown under passenger bill of rights

In correspondence viewed by Global News, Air Canada frequently claimed disruptions were out of its control, referencing flights that were delayed because of maintenance.

“The inconsistent reasons [for denying compensation] demonstrate in my mind that the airline is lying and that they are not being honest with passengers,” Lukacs said.
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Greg Cashin, who works for an oil and gas company in Calgary, attempted to claim $400 for a three-hour delay on a Jan. 26 Air Canada flight from Las Vegas to Calgary.

Although Air Canada’s assessment shows the flight was delayed due to “scheduling issues,” the airline denied his compensation request because the delay was “outside of our control.” However, a separate meal voucher issued for the same flight classified the reason for the delay as “controllable.”

“I’m a frequent traveller and I know what’s in their control and what’s outside of their control,” Cashin said. “This one was squarely within their control. It’s quite frustrating that they’re not being forthcoming about it.”

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Nearly 10,000 air travel complaints since July 2019

Complaints related to the APPR are handled by the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA).

The agency has said airlines are expected to document reasons for each flight delay and cancellation and must report information about flight disruptions to Transport Canada. Airlines caught breaking the new regulations could face up to $25,000 in fines for each violation.

CTA told Global News it has received nearly 10,000 air travel complaints since phase one of the APPR first came into effect on July 15, 2019. The agency said in an email:

“This is an unprecedented volume and we are currently evaluating the complaints, including whether they are all related to the APPR.”

CTA said it cannot comment on how many of the claims are attributable to a specific issue because it is still in the process of reviewing the complaints.

“Where the CTA receives a complaint regarding a flight disruption, the airline would have to demonstrate which category the disruption fell into and how it met its obligations,” the agency said. “If it were discovered that an airline had misrepresented the cause of a delay to the CTA, this would be taken very seriously and appropriate enforcement action would be taken.”

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Garneau outlines changes for phase 1 of air passenger bill of rights

Asked whether Transport Minister Marc Garneau was investigating concerns around passenger complaints and potential loopholes in the new legislation, his office said the responsibility to enforce the new rules falls onto the CTA.

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“Once passengers submit a claim to the CTA, the Agency will review the facts and make a decision. The outcome could require the airline to compensate passengers and possibly pay a fine for non-compliance with the regulations,” said Garneau’s press secretary Livia Belcea in an email.

“Since being fully implemented on December 15, 2019, the CTA has rigorously applied APPRs, demonstrating that the process is working.”