‘Dog and pony show’: Passenger rights expert slams low airline fines for winter travel chaos

Click to play video: 'Canadian airlines fined for hundreds of violations'
Canadian airlines fined for hundreds of violations
The federal government fines several Canadian airlines thousands of dollars for violations related to the travel nightmares over the past few months. Aaron McArthur reports – Mar 16, 2023

After a dark winter at many airports, the federal regulator has taken notice and issued fines to multiple Canadian airlines after mass flight delays and cancellations.

However, an advocate for air passenger rights says the punishment from the Canadian Transportation Agency is too little, too late.

“If an airline gets caught one out of 100 times and the amount at stake would be $500, then the fine should be at least $50,000. Just to break even,” according to Gábor Lukács, with the organization Air Passenger Rights.

“The maximum fine is $25,000 per violation under the Air Canada Transportation Act, but the Canadian Transportation Agency is nowhere near that.”

According to the CTA, Sunwing was slapped with a $126,000 fine and WestJet hit with $112,800.

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While that may seem like a big fine, it only works out to a few hundred dollars per transgression. Lukács calls it especially galling since the CTA could issue a $25,000 fine per violation.

“It’s a dog and pony show,” he said.

He said it’s also frustrating since these fines are a drop in the bucket for airlines and passengers are often forced to bear the costs without repayment.

“The problem is passengers who are due compensation are not being paid compensation in many cases, and there are very few cases when the airline breaks the law and gets caught,” Lukács explained.

Since 2019, when the rules came into effect the CTA has been tasked with upholding air passenger protection regulations.

In that time, the CTA received tens of thousands of complaints from passengers saying airlines are not playing by the rules.

On Tuesday, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced $75.9 million over three years to help the CTA clear the backlog.

“There are certain things that are within the control of the airlines, and we need to have clearer rules that puts the responsibility on the airlines when it’s their responsibility.”

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Alghabra said the funds will be used to hire 200 employees to process air passenger complaints, but Lukács said the move will not fix the problem.

“The reason that we have such a backlog is twofold: Lack of enforcement and a complex framework that makes practical enforcement of passengers rights very, very challenging,” Lukács stated.

He cited one instance where a small claims court adjudicator lamented the fact that for deciding the fate of a $400 decision more than 1000 pages of documents were needed.

Since then, Lukács said the backlog has only grown.

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“It’s a serious problem. It is disproportionate to the amount at stake when you scale it up to 40,000 complaints. It becomes unmanageable to society. No matter how many people we sign up to deal with complaints, the system is so labour-intensive that adjudication of a single case requires a full working day, meaning they can only manage 150 complaints per year. That’s it.”

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He said the complaints will continue to build up unless serious changes are made to the system.

Lukács said the Canada Transportation Act needs to be amended to closer resemble the European Union model and provide a zero-tolerance policy for airline violations.

“I would anticipate after three different airlines were each fined at least a million dollars and were made to pay, the tone would very much change. The message has to get across to upper management and to the shareholders that Canada means business.”

This comes after last week’s announcement that WestJet’s purchase of Sunwing could proceed, leaving some customers worried this will only make it harder for the CTA to hold the airline industry accountable.

Alghabra also hinted at other changes upcoming in a revamped passenger rights charter, including potential reforms to the regulator’s role as an investigative and enforcement body.

“We are looking at strengthening the rules, as I said, and perhaps looking at increasing the authorities that the CTA has. But I leave it up to the CTA to exercise its judgment and when and how to impose these fines.”

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