If you’re one of the millions of Canadians planning to fly somewhere during this holiday season — almost three million passengers will trudge through Toronto’s Pearson Airport alone — you’re probably prepared to deal with delays and cancellations.
After all, winter in Canada reliably brings blizzards, freezing drizzle and blustery winds.
But this holiday season, for the first time, Canadian air passengers will have an updated Bill of Rights when they fly to, from or within Canada. The Transportation Modernization Act, which was enacted in May 2018, mandated the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) to develop Air Passenger Protection Regulations. The first round of provisions (see below) were enforced on June 15.
And now on December 15, more provisions will come into effect, including flight disruptions and seating children under the age of 14 at no additional cost near the adults accompanying them.
Compensations for passengers
The compensation for passengers on large airlines amounts to $400 for a delay of between three and six hours, $700 for a delay of six to nine hours, and $1,000 for a delay of nine hours. Small airlines must pay $125, $250 and $500, respectively, for those same delays.
The compensation can be cash or vouchers or flight rebates, but it’s up to the passenger to decide which option to choose. And if what is offered is not cash, the compensation must have a value higher than the mandated minimum and cannot expire.
However the airline, big or small, won’t owe you a dime if the delay or cancellation is due to one of the many factors deemed by the government to be beyond the airline’s control or a safety issue.
These include weather, airport operations, unforeseen mechanical issues or malfunctions and crew issues not within the airline’s control.
The following constitute a delay or cancellation within the airline’s control that require compensation:
Scheduled maintenance of an aircraft that is necessary to comply with legal requirements.
Mechanical malfunction of the aircraft identified during scheduled maintenance.
Also, consolidating flights that would otherwise be flying with too few passengers,” notes Scott Streiner, Chair and CEO of the Canadian Transportation Agency, which is charged with implementing the new regulations.
Consolidating flights “is not common practice,” assures Streiner. “But if it results in a delay of three hours or more for passengers, they must be compensated.”
But, er, what if the airline is less than honest about what’s causing the delay? Couldn’t “mechanical malfunction” or “safety issue” be a handy and credible excuse?
It’s not as if we don’t always trust what an airline is telling us…..well, okay, we don’t always trust what an airline is telling us.
“Airlines are required by regulations to inform passengers about the reasons for delays and cancellations,” insists Streiner. “We would certainly hope the airlines wouldn’t make something up.”
If a passenger suspects this may be the case, he suggests, “they can bring matters forward to the CTA. We could determine if the airline is being forthright because the guidelines require that they keep detailed records.”
As well, the regulations establish minimum standards of treatment that airlines will have to provide to passengers for delays at departure that are within their control.
After a departure delay of two hours, the airline operating the disrupted flight will have to “provide food and drink in reasonable quantities and electronic means of communication (e.g., free wifi).”
If a delay is expected to extend overnight, airlines will have to offer hotel or other comparable accommodation free of charge, as well as free transportation to the accommodation.
While Streiner believes the passenger protection regulations are “robust, fair and balanced” and “a big step forward” for Canadians, that’s not the opinion of airline passengers rights activist Gabor Lukacs.
“The rules contain no real obligations for the airlines to pay compensation,” insists Lukacs, who’s based in Halifax. “The government is misleading the public as to the effect of the new rules.
“Compensation is NOT payable not only in the case of cancellations/delays due to weather, but also when it is due to maintenance issues for which the airlines are fully responsible.
“The net effect,” he says “is that airlines will pay compensation for cancellations and delays only when they voluntarily feel so — or when the media covers an incident and pressures the airline to pay.”
Nevertheless, these new regulations are helping to raise travellers’ awareness and expectations about their rights and the airlines’ responsibilities.
This first round of regulations that came into affect on July 15, 2019 consisted of the following:
· Communication to passengers in the event of flight delays and cancellations
· Providing compensation of up to $2,400 for bumping a passenger for reasons within the airlines’ control;
· Ensuring passengers receive prescribed standards of treatment during all tarmac delays and allowing them to leave the airplane, when it’s safe to do so, if a tarmac delay lasts for over three hours and there is no prospect of an imminent take-off;
· Providing compensation for lost or damaged baggage of up to $2,100 and a refund of any baggage fees; and
· Setting clear policies for transporting musical instruments.
Does the Transportation Moderation Act Go Far Enough?
The Transportation Modernization Act, passed in May 2018, was the initiative of Transport Minister Marc Garneau, who knows a thing or two about the hazards and discomforts of careening through space high above our planet. Maybe that’s why the former astronaut and current minister of transport sponsored the bill in Parliament meant to protect the rights of air passengers. Perhaps not surprisingly, the airlines say the rules – which deal with topics like clear communication on passenger rights, timely updates for delays or cancellations, compensation for getting bumped from a flight, and maintaining a certain standard of treatment when stuck on the tarmac – go too far.
Some passenger advocates say they don’t go far enough.
Nate Laurie, a retired journalist and economist living in Waterloo, Ont., also knows something about the hazards and discomforts of careening through space as an airline passenger. “It’s such an unpleasant experience,” he says. “People are treated like cattle.” Even worse, Laurie complained, was being squashed into an airplane seat and not flying through space.
“The pilot told us Delta had forgotten those Canadian customs forms,” he recalls about his flight from New York to Toronto shortly before the forms became unnecessary. “Another 20 minute wait. When the doors were finally closed, the pilot informed us that we were 20th in line for takeoff, and the wait would be another half hour. We did finally take off at the exact time we were supposed to land in Toronto.”
As of July 15, airlines were required to follow established standards for the treatment of passengers in the case of tarmac delays of more than three hours.
That means you won’t have to call 911 if you’re stuck on the plane for six hours on the tarmac without adequate food or water, and the pilot won’t let you leave.
That’s what happened to Transat passengers at the Ottawa airport when weather caused planes to be diverted from Toronto and Montreal.
Then there was the series of unfortunate events that befell passengers last winter on a Delta flight from Kansas City to Los Angeles. Stuck on the tarmac for 11 hours because of an ice storm, they were informed that the plane was ready to go but, alas, the crew’s shift had just in the last few minutes run over the legal time limit. The flight was cancelled, and passengers received $100 vouchers in compensation. And yes, they were allowed off the plane for good behaviour – er, to get food.
Still that was a minor inconvenience compared to the now infamous misfortune of an American who was yanked from his seat on a United plane in Chicago before take-off. Airport police dragged him fighting and yelling through the aisle with his face bloodied and shoved him out the door because the airline needed his seat for an employee. It was the equivalent of being forcefully thrown overboard.
Garneau cited the “much-publicized cases of the unacceptable treatment of air travellers both in this country and south of the border” when he introduced the bill.
He told legislators “that when passengers purchase an airline ticket, they expect and deserve the airline to fulfill its part of the transaction. When that agreement is not fulfilled, passengers deserve clear, transparent and enforceable standards of treatment and compensation.”
Many such standards were already specified by 1999’s Carriage by Air (Montreal Convention) Act and, according to the Act, “have the force of law in Canada.”
But these were often ignored by the airlines, and few passengers were well-informed about their rights and what to expect. Moreover, passengers who were seeking compensation were required to sue the airline and to prove damages.
“When things go wrong, people find it incredibly frustrating because they feel they have very little control,” explained CTA’s Streiner, before Bill C-49 was introduced. “They don’t know what their rights are, what they’re entitled to, who to turn to.”
The CTA, which is mandated with providing consumer protection for air travellers, consulted with other agencies, passengers and air carriers to formulate details of the Bill C-49 regulations — for example, compensation amounts and policies for cancelled or delayed flights and lost or damaged luggage.
However, the Air Passenger Rights organization, a voluntary consumers’ group headed by Lukács, insists that Bill C-49 does nothing to fix the situation Streiner describes.
He’s also highly critical of the CTA which, he maintains, favours airlines to the detriment of passengers. “The consultations were a dog-and-pony show,” he insists. “They were talking to the airlines before discussion took place with passengers.”
C-49, he says, “contains no passengers’ rights and creates a framework that is way worse than what exists in Europe.”
Jacob Charbonneau, whose company, FlightClaim (flightclaim.ca), makes compensation claims for air passengers on a contingency basis, says millions of dollars owed to passengers according to the European law go unclaimed.
Under European law, when a flight to or from Europe on a European carrier or on any carrier leaving from a European airport is delayed for three hours or more, canceled or overbooked, each passenger can claim up to 600 euros in compensation. Also, the European Union requires compensation even when the delay or cancellation is due to mechanical issues. (With Brexit threatening to happen on Jan. 31, European Union regulations regarding flights to and from Britain may no longer apply.)
Passengers aboard an Air Canada flight to Maui this past Christmas Eve were given $10 food vouchers when the aircraft returned to Vancouver for “maintenance reasons.” An airline spokesperson noted they also got a discount for future travel, free meals on board and a meal at the gate before reboarding, landing in Maui 15 hours after their initial takeoff. If they had provable losses, they could apply for compensation under the current existing Carriage by Air Act, Lukács told CTVNews.ca. Under the new regulations, however, unforeseen mechanical issues wouldn’t trigger compensation for delays.
In 2016, there were 634 delays and 115 cancellations of flights to or from Canada eligible for compensation, impacting an estimated 187,000 passengers. Yet, only two per cent of passengers filed a claim. “People need to know they have three years to make a complaint,” says Charbonneau.
The point of Bill C-49, says Sara Wiebe, director general, Air Policy, Transport Canada, is “to make sure the system is more efficient, to create an environment where, if there is an issue with an air carrier, it would be resolved at the gate of the plane. Both the carrier and the passenger should be clear about what would have to be done.” This includes a plan for mandated transparency, standardized compensation and awareness campaigns.
Says Wiebe, “We want to create a framework whereby air carriers become more aware of the impact of delays or lost luggage so they adjust their business to avoid repercussions.”
Nate Laurie thinks the legislation may “help in terms of the worst horror stories, simply not allowing the airlines to abuse people.”
But he’s not hopeful that much can be done about the indignities of air travel that accompany cheap fares.
“Nobody is saying, other than through price competition, put the customer first,” he says. “They offer you the cheapest possible flight without putting you with the suitcases, which they haven’t thought of yet. Other than that, nobody cares about the passenger with a cheap ticket.”
Lukács sums up the situation this way: “Airlines cannot do whatever they want. But they pretend they can.”
A version of this story was originally published on Feb. 27, 2019 and updated on July 15, 2019 and Dec. 4, 2019.