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Travellers wait in line at a Sunwing Airlines check-in desk at Trudeau Airport in Montreal on April 20, 2022.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The Canadian Transportation Agency will extend decisions on individual air traveller complaints to others from the same flight, but consumer rights advocates say the changes are unlikely to result in meaningful benefits for most travellers.

The CTA, an industry regulator that also acts as a quasi-judicial tribunal handling disputes between airlines and passengers, can order carriers to pay compensation of up to $1,000 per passenger if it deems a cancellation or lengthy delay to be their fault and not required for safety reasons.

The agency told a federal parliamentary committee in November it would adopt the new process as it struggles to reduce a backlog of tens of thousands of complaints. However, the change doesn’t mean that compensation awarded to one complainant will automatically apply to fellow passengers, the CTA said in an e-mail to The Globe.

The regulator said that once it reaches a decision on a particular case, it may order airlines to notify others on the flight that they could be eligible for compensation or reimbursement of expenses incurred as a result of the flight disruption. Passengers would have to file their own individual claims to have their cases assessed.

Any compensation awarded would be determined by factors such as whether the passenger was delayed at destination or not and for how long, the agency said by e-mail. “For example, passengers on the same connecting flight, but with different final destinations may not experience the same disruption to their travel.”

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The CTA said it will extend decisions reached through adjudication to other passengers. Currently, the agency resolves 97 per cent of the complaints it receives through informal means, such as mediation, with only 3 per cent of cases decided through arbitration or formal adjudication.

The agency did not confirm whether it would extend decisions reached through adjudication in all applicable cases. However, it said it would apply the process to complaints involving the widespread flight disruptions that Canadians experienced in December.

The new approach amounts to a “baby step” in streamlining the way the agency deals with air traveller complaints, said John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa. But the onus is still on consumers to complain, a burdensome and lengthy process, he added.

The CTA told the parliamentary committee that it had a backlog of 30,000 air passenger complaints, though it added that it had started to see the pace of new complaints slow down.

However, as of early January, the backlog had grown by another 3,000 complaints, the regulator said via e-mail. That figure does not fully reflect complaints relative to December flights as passengers must first contact the airlines directly about their grievances and wait at least 30 days for a response before bringing their complaint to the CTA.

The current wait time between when the agency receives a complaint and when it reviews it is over 18 months.

Under federal rules, passengers are entitled to a rebooking or sometimes a refund for lengthy flight delays or cancellations. But whether airlines must also provide compensation or food and hotel accommodations depends on whether the cause of the flight disruption is deemed to be within the airline’s control or required for safety reasons.

While Mr. Lawford believes the current regime has strengthened passenger protections, it also often results in the CTA weighing whether a particular flight disruption was within or outside a carrier’s control or related to safety. It’s an unworkable approach for high-volume, low-value complaints, he said.

Others take an even dimmer view of the regulations and the CTA’s handling of complaints. Air passenger advocate Gabor Lukacs, who says that some of the new rules weaken passengers’ rights and that the CTA has been too soft on the airlines, advises consumers to avoid the CTA entirely and take their airline complaints to small claims court instead.

But even there, Canadians may face lengthy waits stemming from the pandemic. In Toronto and Ontario’s Waterloo region, for example, courts are still working their way through 2020 files, according to Jahne Baboulas, a Toronto-based licensed paralegal.

Mr. Lukacs, who is based in Halifax, says he isn’t seeing significant delays in small claims hearings in Nova Scotia. But, he added, “it really depends on where you are.”