WestJet says third parties should share compensation costs after flight delays

WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech pauses for a portrait at the airline's headquarters in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, June 30, 2022. The CEO of WestJet Airlines says his company is asking the federal government to allow airlines to recover passenger compensation costs from other industry partners, if they played a role in causing flight delays or disruptions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

WestJet Airlines is asking the federal government to allow airlines to recover passenger compensation costs from other aviation industry partners, if it believes those partners played a role in causing flight delays or disruptions.

The CEO of the Calgary-based airline, Alexis von Hoensbroech, made the comments in Calgary on Wednesday during a Chamber of Commerce event. He said while he supports the air passenger bill of rights instituted in Canada in 2019, which outlines how airlines must communicate and reimburse or compensate travellers for everything from delayed flights to damaged luggage, airlines don’t operate in a vacuum.

“There’s airports, there’s navigation, there’s security, there’s border control, there’s ground handlers,” von Hoensbroech told reporters, adding that none of these parties are subject to the existing air passenger protection regulations the way that airlines are.

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“Whatever happens, it’s always the airline, and the airline basically becomes the insurance company for the entire industry,” he said.

“If you want an aviation sector that collectively produces a reliable product for our guests, then there has to be some shared accountability.”

Thousands of Canadians have suffered through airport backlogs and flight delays in the last year, as the country’s pandemic-ravaged aviation sector has at times struggled to keep up with a dramatic resurgence in demand for air travel.

Under the country’s existing Air Passenger Protection Regulations, travellers can apply directly to the airline for compensation if a flight is delayed for more than three hours for an issue that is within the carrier’s control, but not related to safety.

Some passenger advocates have suggested that in addition to compensating travellers, airlines should be subject to stiff monetary penalties if they don’t live up to their obligations under the passenger bill of rights.

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Von Hoensbroech declined to say exactly how much WestJet has paid out in passenger compensation in the last year, but said the figure is substantial.

“It was a significant double-digit millions figure that we encountered last year,” he said, adding that when airlines are forced to bear a financial burden of that size, they eventually have no choice but to increase fares.

“There is a time lag between these things, but eventually we will have to factor the costs into the ticket price, of course,” he said.

“Because in the end we have to recover all our costs, including compensation.”

Von Hoensbroech’s comments come as Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has vowed to strengthen the air passenger bill of rights, in the face of criticism from passengers who are dissatisfied with the current system.

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Alghabra said last month that the Canadian Transportation Agency was dealing with a backlog of approximately 42,000 air travel-related complaints from passengers, and he promised an additional $75.9 million for the quasi-judicial body to help it speed up the processing of claims.

Von Hoensbroech said while WestJet isn’t trying to shirk its responsibility to passengers, it is hopeful Alghabra will introduce a mechanism allowing airlines to share the costs of compensating travellers with whichever party caused the problem _ whether that be a backlog at customs or a broken-down piece of baggage-handling equipment in an airport.

“From what we’re hearing, this is a concept that they (the federal government) are pursuing. But I don’t know the timing of this,” he said.

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