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Backlog of air passenger complaints tops 57,000, hitting new peak

The backlog of air passenger complaints at Canada’s transport regulator has hit a new high topping 57,000, as dissatisfaction over cancellations and compensation persist three and a half years after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A plane is silhouetted as it takes off from Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on May 13, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

MONTREAL — The backlog of air passenger complaints at Canada’s transport regulator has hit a new high topping 57,000, as dissatisfaction over cancellations and compensation persist three and a half years after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The numbers reveal that an average of more than 3,000 complaints per month have piled up at the Canadian Transportation Agency over the past year, with the current tally well over three times the total from September 2022.

Vancouver residents Chad Kerychuk and Melissa Oei say they are mulling a complaint after they arrived in Halifax six hours later than planned on a flight from their hometown in August 2021 and found themselves separated on board despite buying pricier tickets to select side-by-side spots in advance.

The couple said WestJet has rejected their request for a partial refund.

"More than a year has lapsed since the departure date and the claim period has expired. As such, your claim cannot be approved," WestJet told them in an email.

Kerychuk said the response "feels like a wrong way to treat loyal customers" after years of opting for that carrier over competitors.

"There was no effort made to support us, because we supported them during the pandemic. And I thought that was completely unfair," he said in a phone interview.

The couple's flight was cancelled due to crew delays from an earlier connecting flight and thus "deemed outside of WestJet's control and therefore not eligible for refund," the company said in a statement to The Canadian Press.

"In such circumstances, WestJet will prioritize providing impacted guests with a re-accommodation option to get them to their final destination as fast as possible and unfortunately this can result in an inability to seat guests together."

However, on the scheduled day of departure, WestJet notified customers the disruption was caused by "unplanned maintenance," an exclusion from compensation rules that the federal government says will soon be unavailable to carriers.

In June, the government passed legislation to overhaul Canada’s passenger rights charter, laying out measures to toughen penalties and tighten loopholes around traveller compensation as well as streamline the complaints process.

"There will be no more loopholes where airlines can claim a disruption is caused by something outside of their control for a security reason when it's not," then-transport minister Omar Alghabra told reporters in April.

While most reforms aren’t slated to take effect until Sept. 30, Air Passenger Rights advocacy group president Gabor Lukacs claims the transportation agency could take steps immediately to up the maximum fine for airline violations and kick off consultations on who bears the administrative cost of complaints.

Their rising tally comes as no surprise to him.

"Those soaring numbers show the failure of the government to design regulations which are actually practically enforceable and provide meaningful protection to passengers," Lukacs said.

He pointed to the Air Passenger Protection Regulations, also known as the passenger rights charter, that the government introduced in 2019 — a legal milestone for Canadian travellers, but one that failed to live up to its promise due to loopholes and lack of simplicity, Lukacs said.

"The government adopted a regime which is so complicated, so complex ... that it takes inordinate resources to actually verify eligibility (for compensation)," he said.

He also called out a "dismal record" of enforcement.

"The few fines which are being issued are for low-hanging fruit ... and the CTA has not actually laid the groundwork to issue higher fines."

The transportation agency did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

The amendments to the passenger rights charter allow the regulator to ratchet up the maximum penalty for airline violations to $250,000 — a tenfold increase — and put the regulatory cost of complaints on carriers. In theory, that measure gives airlines an incentive to brush up their service and thus reduce the number of grievances against them.

Since April 1, 2022, WestJet has received nine fines from the Canadian Transportation Agency amounting to $280,580 for various breaches, according to data on the quasi-judicial body's website.

Of that amount, nearly $124,000 stems from failing to "provide the prescribed compensation requested by passenger or an explanation as to why compensation is not payable, within 30 days after the day on which it received the request," the contravention notices state.

The agency has slapped Air Canada with six penalties — only one pertaining directly to compensation — totalling $82,650 since April 1, 2022. Its revenue in the 15 months after that date totalled $24.3 billion.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2023.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press