‘The process puts the burden on the Canadian consumer’: Why passengers continue to battle the airlines

Click to play video: 'Consumer Matters: Navigating the pitfalls of airline compensation'
Consumer Matters: Navigating the pitfalls of airline compensation
Sunwing apologized to passengers Thursday after its services collapsed over the holidays stranding thousands of travellers. Many of them will now be demanding compensation. But the airline regulator, the Canadian Transportation Agency, is facing a backlog of 31,000 airline complaints, with the average resolution taking 18 months. Consumer Matters reporter Anne Drewa has the story. – Jan 5, 2023

The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) – an independent, quasi-judicial tribunal and regulator is coming under fire for its ineffectiveness and lack of enforcement when it comes to punishing airlines for denying compensation to impacted air passengers.

“Right now the process puts the burden on the Canadian consumer that’s got a complaint,” said John Gradek faculty lecturer and coordinator of McGill University’s aviation management program.

Gradek says air travellers who file a complaint with the CTA have to go through a very long and exhausting process.

“They are not the right tool and not the right vehicle to in fact look at adjudicating and making decisions about appeals from customers about airlines’ refusals to in fact pay compensation. There’s got to be a better way,” Gradek told Consumer Matters.

The CTA says as of Dec. 20, it had over 31,000 complaints pending. Currently, the wait time between when a case is submitted and when it’s reviewed is over 18 months.

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While critics argue the wait time is unacceptable, the lack of action to fine airlines who breach Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR) is just as concerning.

“We have a system that we have established under the APPR that defines what the violation of these rules are, they are not being applied, they are not being enforced,” Gradek said.

Click to play video: 'Consumer Matters: Fight for damaged bag compensation'
Consumer Matters: Fight for damaged bag compensation

A notice issued back in September by the CTA for 55 separate violations by WestJet, may be proof.

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It shows the CTA issued a penalty of $200 per violation, instead of the maximum of $25,000.

“What that means economically is that it is actually more profitable for the airlines to disobey the law, stonewall passengers, and occasionally pay a pittance of a fine,” Air Passenger Rights advocate Gabor Lukacs told Consumer Matters.

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So what can consumers do? Some airline passenger advocates suggest taking the airlines to small claims court, while others would like to see more action taken by the Federal Transport Minister.

“Certainly the minister hasn’t been very public about saying ‘I have your back consumers I’ll get this fixed next time’ and that’s unfortunate because I think that’s his role and without that there won’t be any movement from the airlines because they sense the weakness in the government and they say why should we change,“ said the Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s John Lawford.

Still, Canada’s Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said protecting passengers’ rights is a priority. “It’s really important that passengers’ rights are protected. It’s a priority for me. It’s a priority for our government and we will continue to pursue the highest level of protection for our passengers,” said Alghabra.

“We are looking forward to figuring out what other measures can we put in our passenger bill of rights to make sure the airlines are the ones who are responsible for these claims, not the CTA.”

Click to play video: 'Canadians stuck in Mexico criticize airline’s treatment'
Canadians stuck in Mexico criticize airline’s treatment

Alghabra’s comments come after the recent travel chaos during the holidays, which saw thousands of travellers stranded in Mexico after Sunwing cancelled their flights.

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When asked if his department will be launching a large-scale investigation over what happened, Alghabra said he’s deferring that responsibility to the CTA.

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