From “security reasons” to “maintenance issues,” airlines have given Canadians an array of reasons this summer for why their travel plans were disrupted.
A travel consultant in Winnipeg said the “ridiculous” scenario unfolding can be partially blamed on the vagueness of Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR).
The document outlining Canadian air travellers’ rights is so confusing, said Max Johnson of TTJ Tourism, that passengers remain in the dark, and airlines take advantage.
“Airlines no longer have to give a reason for the disruption. They simply have to spout gobbly gook and people will go, ‘Well, alright then. Yeah, I suppose you’re right.’ They know customers won’t take them to small claims court,” Johnson said.
“Air passenger rights are mandated by the federal government through the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA). That agency does a dreadful job at letting the public know it has policies in place.”
Johnson, along with another advocate for air passenger rights, is now sounding the alarm about federal regulations from that same agency that came into effect Sept. 8. The new regulations are supposed to help more passengers get their money back if their trips were disrupted.
New regulations were “already the law,” expert says
The regulations, an amendment to the APPR, state that if airlines cancel or delay a passenger’s travel plans for three hours or more for reasons outside an airline’s control, a refund must be issued to the passenger if the airline fails to book them on the next available flight within 48 hours of their original departure time.
Prior to this amendment, APPR guidance on refunds addressed only those disruptions within an airline’s control, and ones due to safety concerns, but not those outside airline control.
That means, according to the CTA, that the new regulations “close a gap” in the code that disadvantaged passengers seeking refunds.
Yet an advocate for air passenger rights calls the CTA’s wording “simply misinformation.”
“There is no gap,” said Gabor Lukacs, president of Air Passenger Rights.
Lukacs claims the regulations were already the law — written in a number of different documents like the Canada Transportation Act — but not explicitly stated in the APPR.
He claims the government is merely writing the regulations down into the document, to pass it off as a “new” rule.
“The APPR is not a complete code. It does not say, for example, that airlines shouldn’t put passengers in a cargo hold. That doesn’t mean that airlines should go ahead and do it.”
Lukacs points to a 2021 House of Commons report as proof that the amendments are not new.
In June of that year, the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure, and Communities urged the federal government to recognize that “the fundamental right to a refund for passengers of cancelled flights exists,” even if it’s not stated in the APPR.
The CTA refutes Lukacs’ claims.
“You can read the text of the legislation and the regulation. This is something we’re adding,” said Tom Oommen, director general of the Analytics and Outreach Branch at CTA, in a Zoom interview with Global News.
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But Lukacs claims the government is further misleading the public about the recent regulations, starting with an Aug. 10 announcement.
Originally, the Minister of Transport said the regulations coming Sept. 8 would ensure passengers are “compensated” for disruptions outside airline control.
“That is a blatant lie,” Lukacs said. “The amendments deal with refunds, not with compensation.”
That means passengers would be entitled to getting back the price of their ticket, but not expenses they incurred while they were delayed — things like the cost of meals, hotel rooms, or replacing lost luggage.
The CTA told Global the wording in the August announcement wasn’t meant literally.
“I think ‘compensation’ was being used in a generic sense of the word, not in the technical sense — meaning Canadians will get restitution for being delayed,” Oommen said.
Later correspondences surrounding the regulations clarified that refunds — not compensation — will be provided to passengers, Oommen said.
Regulations create exploitable loophole, advocates claim
Whether the new regulations were already the law, Johnson and Lukacs say the wording puts passengers in a more vulnerable position to be exploited by airlines.
Oommen confirmed to Global that a refund would be owed to a passenger in the scenario outlined by the rules — that is, only if the airline failed to book them on the next flight within that 48-hour window.
Lukacs said that means airlines can offer up a flight, however unreasonable it may be, and can just “pocket your money” if you refuse the booking.
The 48-hour time period, Johnson said, is a also large window of leeway that would wreck plans for customers who were hoping to fly to and from their destination during the same day, or over a single weekend.
The CTA said customers may be entitled to a rebooking within a shorter time frame, but that would be based on the individual sale contract they had with the airline when they bought the ticket, not based on federal guidelines.
“The regulations establish a floor … what all airlines are required to provide to passengers, how all airlines are required to treat passengers. Airlines are also businesses that seek to retain their clients. I imagine they will act accordingly.”
The federal regulator has been working hard to educate the public on air travel rights, Oommen said. It has put out recent rulings in favour of passengers, such as mandating a 30-day refund period, and instructing airlines that crew shortages cannot always be deemed as a disruption “outside” of an airline’s control.
But Lukacs and Johnson say the amendments and rulings do not come close to the work that other regulators, like the one in the European Union, have been doing to protect passengers.
The CTA, said Lukacs, has also “miserably failed” in its duty to fine airlines that disrupted passengers this summer.
In late August, Oommen said that the federal regulator was working through approximately 18,000 complaints from passengers — about a year’s worth — and that it has been holding airlines accountable for disrupting passengers.
As of Sept. 12, the federal website stated only five airlines have been fined so far this year.