Canada’s transportation regulator does not keep track of the outcomes of the vast majority of the air passenger complaints it receives, leaving no indication of how many are resolved in favour of the customer – and what compensation, if any, was issued.
The Canadian Transportation Agency, which can, in certain circumstances, order airlines to pay compensation of up to $1,000 per passenger for flight cancellations or lengthy delays, told Parliament at least twice in the past three months that it relies on informal means to resolve 97 per cent of the complaints it handles. The remaining 3 per cent of cases are decided through formal processes, mainly adjudication.
The outcomes of decisions reached through adjudication are published, but the agency does not have data on the results of the much larger number of claims it handles informally. The lack of information makes it impossible to know how often air passengers with legitimate complaints are having their rights upheld.
Tom Oommen, director general of the analysis and outreach branch at the CTA, said the agency doesn’t track those informal outcomes because they are sometimes reached privately. “We have no way of compelling airlines or passengers to tell us if they’ve settled a dispute between themselves without us,” Mr. Oommen said.
He did not directly respond to a question about why the agency doesn’t publicly share whatever records it does have about the complaints it handles informally. “We don’t publish information about informal discussions,” he said.
Before filing a claim with the CTA, a passenger must first attempt to resolve their complaint directly with an airline and wait at least 30 days for a reply. If they are not satisfied with the carrier’s response or don’t get a timely reply, they can bring their grievance to the CTA.
Once the CTA gets involved, a case officer usually leads an informal exchange between the parties, in a process known as facilitation. A passenger can choose whether to accept or reject any offer made by the airline. If the passenger isn’t satisfied, they can proceed to formal dispute resolution.
At any point during the facilitation process, a passenger can decide to close their complaint, and they can do so without providing the CTA with a reason for their decision.
Complaints that are closed this way – either because a passenger has accepted an airline’s offer, or because they have decided not to press ahead for some other reason – are considered to have been resolved informally.
The CTA has been under scrutiny from politicians following widespread travel disruptions during this past summer and holiday season. The agency is tackling a backlog of 33,000 air passenger complaints. Consumers now face an average wait time of 18 months before the CTA begins acting on their files.
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While public attention has focused on the agency’s inability to process complaints in a timely fashion, consumer advocates say the lack of insight into the outcomes of claims is also an issue.
John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa, said the dearth of statistics may have to do with the fact that the CTA is a quasi-judicial tribunal – essentially a court, designed to issue judgments on individual cases.
But the scope of the CTA’s duties changed with the introduction of Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations, which Mr. Lawford said “are structured for an ombudsman-type model,” where consumer complaints are quickly processed in large volumes. The APPRs, which were meant to strengthen air passengers’ rights, came fully into effect at the end of 2019.
Consumer ombudsmen typically collect detailed statistics about results of the complaints they handle. For example, the Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments, which handles disputes between some banks and investment firms and their customers, regularly publishes statistics on how often it recommends monetary or non-monetary compensation for consumers or investors.
Courts aren’t focused on publishing statistics, but their proceedings are generally open to the public. And yet, unlike court proceedings, the details of consumer cases the CTA processes through informal means aren’t published, Mr. Lawford said.
The CTA does collect some statistics about air passenger claims. For example, it tracks the types of issues raised by travellers and the number of complaints per 100 flights for various airlines. In its latest annual report, the CTA said it had processed 15,264 air travel complaints between April, 2021, and March, 2022.
During that period, passengers withdrew 2,701 complaints, or almost 18 per cent of the total, before the CTA had acted on them, according to data from the agency. That is in addition to an unknown number of travellers who may have withdrawn their claims after intervention by the CTA.
Mr. Oommen said “anecdotal information” suggests some of the early withdrawals reflect the fact that passengers have been able to settle their disputes directly with airlines, before CTA facilitators intervene. But it’s also possible that some of those withdrawals had to do with travellers dropping their claims because of the long wait times, he said.
Gabor Lukacs, an air passenger advocate who runs a Facebook group with more than 100,000 members where travellers can air their grievances and ask for advice, said people often decide to withdraw their CTA claims so they can pursue their complaints in small claims court instead.
Mr. Lukacs added that, over the course of his career, he could recall only one instance of a passenger who had filed a complaint with the CTA and was able to resolve their grievance with the airline before the agency’s intervention. The case predated the introduction of the current air passenger protection rules, he said.
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