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Passengers wait to check-in at Cancun International Airport last December after several flights from Mexico to Canada were cancelled because of severe winter weather conditions.PAOLA CHIOMANTE/Reuters

A parliamentary committee is calling for tougher rules that cover how airlines treat passengers, including imposing higher fines for mistreatment and streamlining the complaints process.

The House of Commons standing committee on transport on Tuesday released a report with 21 recommendations aimed at improving the regulations that outline when customers are entitled to refunds and compensation if flights are cancelled or delayed, and baggage lost. The rules, first enacted in 2019, also dictate how airlines communicate with and treat customers who are unable to complete their flights.

However, the rash of poor airline service and delays at airports over the past year have underscored the weaknesses of the rules, known as the Air Passenger Protection Regulations, and revealed them, critics say, to be tilted in favour of the companies.

The recommendations released on Tuesday include:

  • passengers automatically get compensated for delays or cancellations, instead of having to apply to the airline and then complain to the regulator;
  • a review of airlines’ ability to rely on “safety” as a reason to cancel a flight and avoid compensating passengers;
  • airlines be required to show why a passenger should not be compensated for a delay or cancelled flight, a reversal of the burden of proof;
  • the regulator to investigate airlines’ practices of giving away luggage deemed lost;
  • the complaints process be simplified to allow quicker decisions by the regulator, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA).

The CTA has been swamped by more than 42,000 complaints from air passengers over the past few years, and it takes about 18 months to issue a ruling. To further alleviate the burden on the consumer, the committee says if the CTA rules in favour of one passenger, all the others on the flight should be notified of the decision so they might also seek compensation.

Sylvie DeBellefeuille, a lawyer with Option Consommateurs, a consumer advocacy group in Montreal, said the rules need to be amended because they currently place the burden of proof on the passenger to show why their flight was delayed or cancelled. Passengers are also forced to rely on whatever information the airline provides.

For instance, an airline can cancel a flight for safety reasons, allowing it to avoid compensating passengers. “It’s a huge loophole in which we can put everything,” Ms DeBellefeuille said by phone.

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In Europe, airlines are not permitted to dodge compensating passengers for safety-related cancellations within a carrier’s control. Ms. DeBellefeuille welcomed the proposal to require airlines to show why compensation should not be awarded, a reversal of the current standard.

John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and a witness at the committee hearings, said getting rid of the evidentiary burden on the customer does not go far enough, and will not relieve the backlog at the CTA. “At the moment the airline has all the information on what was wrong with the flight and the customer doesn’t know, and therefore you have to wait until the CTA gets your case,” Mr. Lawford said.

The committee recommended increasing the fines for violating the passenger rules so that “the cost of violating the regulations is higher than the costs of abiding by them,” but did not specify an amount. Currently, the regulator can issue a penalty of $25,000 for violating the rules.

The report will be tabled in the House of Commons and serve as advice to Transport Minister Omar Alghabra. He is not bound by any of the recommendations. Mr. Alghabra has said he plans to make changes to the rules that will stop airlines from denying compensation in some cases, but has not provided details.

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