Skip to main content

Travellers at Toronto Pearson International Airport’s Terminal 3 on May 12.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Airlines will soon be required to provide refunds or alternative flights to passengers whose trips are cancelled or delayed by at least three hours for reasons outside the control of the carriers.

The regulations announced on Wednesday by the Canadian Transportation Agency, or CTA, are a response to the aviation industry’s collapse early in the pandemic, when thousands of flights were cancelled and customers were unable to get back their money.

The new rules, which go into effect on Sept. 8, are amendments to the Air Passenger Protection Regulations and are not retroactive.

Until then, passengers whose flights are cancelled or delayed by three hours or more for reasons the airline cannot control, including weather or closed borders, are not entitled to a refund. The airline must rebook them on the next available flight.

The change allows customers to choose between a refund or another flight that leaves within 48 hours on the airline in question, or a partner airline, at no additional cost. Large carriers are required to put customers on competitors’ planes.

“These regulations will close the gap in the Canadian air passenger protection regime highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure that even when cancellations and lengthy delays occur that are outside the airline’s control, passengers will be protected if the airline cannot complete their itinerary within a reasonable period of time,” France Pégeot, CTA chief executive officer, said in a statement.

The new rules align with the policy Air Canada adopted last year, said company spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick.

Under pressure from the government early in 2021, Air Canada and some other airlines agreed to change their policies and offer refunds rather than credits for flights cancelled in the pandemic. Ottawa made the refunds a requirement for any government aid to the airlines, which were largely grounded for long stretches. WestJet Airlines, however, did not accept a bailout and declined to give refunds to passengers who cancelled their own flights.

On Wednesday, WestJet’s vice-president of government relations, Andrew Gibbons, said the airline is “disappointed” that the new rule unfairly makes it the “sole provider of reimbursement” for delays it cannot control. He said the airline relies on government agencies, NAV Canada, Canada Border Services Agency and Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) to provide a seamless experience for travelers. These are the agencies that are understaffed and blamed for much of the delays at airports, particularly Toronto Pearson.

Amid the recent bottlenecks at airports, the airline industry has been pushing for the government agencies to be accountable for the delays stemming from customs and security checkpoints.

“We are disappointed that airlines continue to be singled out as the only point of ownership and accountability for travel in Canada as this must be a shared responsibility by the entire ecosystem,” Mr. Gibbons said.

The CTA said it does not have the mandate to resolve passenger claims related to problems with customs, immigration, security or other airport services.

CATSA said it could not provide an immediate response to questions on Wednesday. Rebecca Purdy, a CBSA spokeswoman, said the agency is not covered by the passenger rights rules, but that people can file complaints with the agency itself.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the changes will help ensure travellers are treated with “fairness and respect.”

“Whether due to a large-scale cancellation or a small incident, we know that sometimes travel doesn’t go according to plan,” Mr. Alghabra said in a press release. “These new regulations will protect travellers in these unexpected situations.”

However, the rules will be of no help to customers who travel this summer and face chaos at Toronto Pearson airport and other hubs. A surge in travel has run into a shortage of staff at government-run security and customs checkpoints, leading to delays, lineups and airplanes being held at gates. Compounding the bottlenecks are COVID-19-related questionnaires and processes.

Between May 1 and June 9, the CTA received 1,402 complaints from passengers about flight delays, cancellations and boarding denials. “Because these complaints are still very new, none have been decided or facilitated yet,” the CTA said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.

By comparison, the CTA received 1,196 complaints about airlines in February, 1,337 in March and 1,115 in April. “These are complaints by passengers under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations against airlines, not against airport authorities,” the CTA said.

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.