New rules that govern how airlines handle delayed travellers, lost luggage and other complaints are facing legal challenges on two fronts, with the aviation industry claiming the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) is exceeding its authority and passenger advocates saying the rules don’t do enough to protect flyers.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), two other industry groups and 16 airlines, including Air Canada and Porter Airlines, have filed a joint application to overturn the new rules with the Federal Court of Appeal. They argue the regulations that set passenger compensation for delayed or cancelled flights contradict the rules airlines follow when they fly internationally, known as the Montreal Convention. They also say Canada has no authority to impose the rules on foreign carriers, and that compensation payments go beyond customers’ actual losses.
The CTA, which enacted the new rules, is expected to file its reply to IATA’s appeal application on Monday.
Two advocates for the rights of passengers and disabled people, meanwhile, are also seeking leave to appeal the regulations, the first set of which went into effect on July 15. Bob Brown and Gabor Lukacs say in their court filing the changes that allow airlines to keep passengers on board while planes idle on the tarmac for up to three hours and 45 minutes – up from 90 minutes – endanger the health of people with disabilities and violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Mr. Lukacs said in an interview the new rules amount to a “publicity stunt,” and are worded in ways that make it hard for passengers to win complaints. As an example, he said, airlines can overbook flights and bump passengers by e-mailing them new flight itineraries, a practice that no longer meets the definition of “denial of boarding.”
The new rules govern passenger air travel to, from and within Canada, replacing international standards and domestic regulation. The first set of rules requires airlines to pay up to $2,400 to passengers who are bumped from a flight for reasons within the airline’s control. Airlines also must compensate passengers up to $2,100 for lost or damaged baggage, and set “clear” policies for carrying musical instruments.
The second set of rules, which goes into effect on Dec. 15, includes compensation of up to $1,000 if a flight is delayed or cancelled for reasons within an airline’s control that are not safety-related.
In the week after the regulations went into force, the CTA received one passenger complaint under the new rules. It also received another 242 complaints that week, but has not yet determined which of those are related to the new rules, the CTA said in an e-mail.
The CTA says it hopes the new rules will address an increasing volume of consumer complaints by setting minimum standards for such issues as communication with passengers, flight delays and cancellations and the seating of children; prior to the changes, flyer complaints were handled by the Montreal Convention rules, airline policies or federal guidelines. The agency fielded 5,500 air-travel complaints in 2017-18, an increase from an annual average of 700 between 2012 and 2016, which it attributes in part to greater awareness of its role.
Air Canada, Air Transat and the big U.S. airlines are ranked near the bottom of 313 global brands in an annual ranking of companies’ consumer trust, published by the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria. WestJet fares better, ranking 55, while Porter Airlines sits at 124 in the 2019 ranking, based on input from 7,000 people.
Saul Klein, dean of the Gustavson School of Business, said a lack of competition on all but the major routes in Canada has left travellers with few choices and entitled airlines with a “take-it-or-leave-it” approach to customer service.
Prof. Klein said he doubts the new rules will empower passengers in their fight for compensation if they are bumped or delayed at an airport, because the airlines will argue such events are beyond their control or due to safety considerations.
“The problem here is you’ve got some major outs for the airlines,” Prof. Klein said.
Mr. Brown, a 65-year-old Ottawa man who has used a wheelchair since he was 18, said he is trying to overturn the rules on behalf of others in similar situations. Mr. Brown said airplane bathrooms are not accessible to people in wheelchairs, and that longer permitted delays on the tarmac can make flying unsafe or impossible. And he said the seats on planes are unsuited for people who use wheelchairs, and can cause medical problems that require hospitalization – a threat made more likely with longer waits on the tarmac.
“It’s a big step backwards, especially for a person with disabilities,” Mr. Brown said.
IATA, the airline group, said in comments filed with the federal government that up to $1,000 in compensation for a nine-hour delay, without requiring passengers to demonstrate individual loss, is an “arbitrary” or “punitive” amount that is not allowed under the Montreal Convention. Similarly, IATA said payments for lost or damaged baggage could exceed liability limits or actual losses.
Canadian airlines said they are complying with the new rules even as two of them wage a legal battle against the regulations.
“There were rules in place before the regulations passed, so we were following them and other airlines were as well,” said Brad Cicero, a spokesman for Toronto-based Porter Airlines.
Odette Trottier, a spokeswoman for Air Transat, said the Montreal-based airline is complying with the new regulations.
Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for Air Canada, declined an interview request.
Ed Sims, WestJet Airlines Ltd.’s chief executive, said in an interview the airline has been “making sure that we’re doing everything we can” and adhering to strict schedules for its 750 daily flights with the new rules in mind.
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