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Travellers wait on hold as they try and speak with their respective airlines at Toronto Pearson International Airport, as a major winter storm disrupts flights in and out of the airport, in Toronto, on Dec. 24, 2022.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

The federal government is rewriting the rules on how airlines must treat passengers, making it harder for the carriers to dodge responsibility when flights are cancelled or delayed and raising the fines for those that violate the regulations.

Airlines that cancel or delay a flight will no longer have a “safety” loophole that automatically absolves them of giving passengers compensation, free food and other assistance in some cases, according to changes to the air passenger protection rules introduced in Parliament last week.

The new rules, which would go into effect on Sept. 30, include raising the penalty for violating the regulations to $250,000 from $25,000, as well as measures intended to make it easier for passengers to seek redress while reducing the mountain of complaints the regulator handles.

Kristine D’Arbelles, senior director of public affairs at the Canadian Automobile Association, which has lobbied the government to improve the rules for passengers, said she is “cautiously optimistic” that the changes will give passengers more power to push airlines to treat them better, with more prompt compensation and refunds.

The changes, which begin on page 292 of the 415-page budget implementation act, are expected to be announced on Monday by Transport Minister Omar Alghabra.

Under the current system, flight cancellations, delays or denials of boarding are grouped into three categories, each with varying degrees of care that is owed to the disappointed passenger: within the airline’s control; within the airline’s control but required for safety; and outside the airline’s control. In the latter two cases, passengers have not been entitled to compensation for their inconveniences.

(Compensation ranges from $125 to $1,000 per passenger, depending on the length of the delay and size of the airline. In major delays, airlines are required to offer a refund or ensure customers complete their trip.)

The new rules eliminate these three categories. The flight problem is presumed to be within the airline’s control and not a safety issue unless the carrier can prove otherwise, the legislation reads. This is similar to the rules European airlines must follow.

“It is clear that the burden of proof must be on the airlines and not on the passengers – and that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” said Nadine Ramadan, a spokeswoman for Mr. Alghabra.

Additionally, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) will publish details of its complaint decisions – including flight numbers and dates – presumably so other passengers can apply for the same treatment. To speed up the complaints-hearing process, mediators will be appointed to deal with complaints within 30 days of a filing. This is a conversion of the CTA’s quasi-judicial adjudication process, which was criticized as slow and cumbersome.

The current rules have been called too lax, slow and complicated to bring about a decision; critics note that airlines were failing to properly staff a flight or provide a plane and calling that a safety issue, denying compensation. Customers would then have to file complaints with the CTA, and wait almost two years for a resolution.

“The onus is on the airline now, not the passenger,” Ms. D’Arbelles said, adding that she is withholding some of her praise because the definitions of a bona fide safety problem are yet to be released.

“This would be a pretty good system because we have no more grey area. What is safety? What is not safety? Is it that the coffee maker was broken? Is one seat belt broken or is the engine needing to be repaired? Definitely that’s safety related. I don’t want to be on that plane,” she said.

“But if there’s a seat belt in row 35 that’s not working. Is that safety related? And does that mean that my entire flight is cancelled?”

The passenger-rights rules were first introduced in 2019, just before the pandemic halted most airline travel around the world.

Air travel in Canada surged in the summer of 2022, at a time when the aviation industry was poorly staffed and ill-prepared. This led to chaos at the major airports, with thousands of cancelled or delayed flights, lost baggage and overcrowded terminals.

The CTA received 42,000 complaints from airline passengers in the 12 months ending on March 31.

“As of April 17, there were nearly 45,000 complaints in the backlog,” said Martine Maltais, a CTA spokeswoman.

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