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The federal government evidently is unable to intervene directly in the Canadian Transportation Agency’s handling of a flood of complaints by airline passengers saying they have not been able to get compensation for delayed or cancelled flights.
A total of 3,037 complaints were submitted in the eight-week period between Dec. 15 and Feb. 13. That compares with 9,034 against all domestic and foreign carriers in all of 2018-2019, the latest fiscal year for which the agency has numbers, and 6,449 the year before.
The agency stresses that its statistics “do not reflect the total number” of passenger complaints because “many travellers resolve their complaints directly with the carrier.”
The upsurge in complaints over the past several years eventually prompted the government to introduce regulations last Dec. 15. They mandate compensation for delays or cancellations which are not safety-related or are outside a carrier’s control, such as weather events.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau said then that the new regime would be “clear, consistent, transparent and fair” for passengers, but the rising tide of complaints suggests otherwise.
When asked about the situation Feb. 27, Garneau’s parliamentary secretary, Ontario MP Chris Bittle, said “the government can’t interfere” because of the agency’s quasi-judicial role, which can be challenged in the Federal Court of Appeal.
He also told reporters outside the House of Commons that the government is looking forward to the results of an investigation launched by the agency two weeks earlier into 570 specific complaints. “On the positive side, it’s good to know that Canadian travellers are learning their rights . . . but we want to see action on this.”
The CTA has said it lacks the resources needed to investigate all outstanding complaints, saying that the others would be dealt with later. Bittle said the government wants “to make sure that it has enough money to do its mandate, and we’ve increased their budget in 2018 and 2019.”
John Lawford, executive director of the Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre has told CBC News that he warned the government that it would be swamped with complaints once the mandatory compensation rules came into effect.
“When you have a federally regulated service that affects every Canadian, like transport or banking or telecom, you’re going to have in the tens of thousands of complaints,” said Lawford, adding that he thought that neither the agency nor the government were ready for the onslaught.
Air Canada, which has topped the agency’s complaint list for the past five years, including 1,997 in 2018-2019, told the CBC that it has devoted “considerable resources” to compensation claims but that “it is not unreasonable that an adjustment period would be required to adapt to these complicated new rules.”
WestJet had 369 complaints in 2019, while Air Transat had 302, Sunwing 252, Flair 225 and Porter 114. The total of 3,356 was rounded out by 97 complaints against other operators.
Flight disruptions accounted for 4,145 complaints against all carriers with baggage-related complaints ranked second at 2,023. The rest were: ticketing, 734; refusal to transport, 464; reservations, 337; denied boarding, 152; fares, 86; and miscellaneous others, 25. A further 2,720 involved issues outside of the agency’s jurisdiction.
Lawford said the underlying problem is that carriers are able to design their own mechanisms for handling complaints.
“In order to bury the hatchet on all this,” he suggested, “the minister should issue actual regulations.”