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What the Transportation Agency’s passenger consultations mean for Canadian travellers

There have been more than 17,000 flight cancellations and 219,100 delays in North America in the past 30 days alone, according to the data service FlightStats.

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A 4 a.m. phone call saying your flight has been cancelled isn’t an auspicious start to any day, let alone a Father’s Day – but that’s just what happened recently. Instead of celebrating with my dad at a backyard barbecue in Toronto later that day, it looked like I’d be hanging out in Portland, Ore., till 11 p.m., and then taking a red eye that would have me land at Toronto’s Pearson airport at 6 the next morning.

The frustration I felt was hardly uncommon. There have been more than 17,000 flight cancellations and 219,100 delays in North America in the past 30 days alone, according to the data service FlightStats. How Canadian airlines handle these cancellations and other passenger inconveniences is about to undergo a radical overhaul, with input from Canadian travellers, but for now, frustrating experiences such as mine are commonplace.

Hoping for a better outcome, I looked up alternative flight routes and dialled Air Canada, my carrier, only to encounter more hurdles. All connecting flights through Canada, I was told, were sold out.

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“What about United?” I asked, knowing the two airlines are members of Star Alliance and often codeshare.. Not an option, the agent told me, saying Air Canada prefers to reroute customers on its own flights in cases of delay or cancellation because it can provide the best passenger care.

Insisting my passenger experience was suffering and that I’d been rebooked on other carriers after past cancellations without a problem, I stood my ground; about 50 minutes later, I hung up the phone with a new United confirmation number in hand and just enough extra time in Portland to check out the famed Voodoo Doughnuts. My new flight had me connecting through San Francisco, something I wasn’t concerned with until I finally landed in Toronto – five and a half hours after I was supposed to get home – and found out my luggage had not.

If I’d been flying home from Europe, where passenger-rights legislation has been in effect since 2005, I’d have been entitled to €600 (about $920 CAD) plus the cost of any items I reasonably needed that were in my bag. According to Air Canada regulations, however, my entitlement was zero, although I did manage to get reimbursed for some toiletries and personal items, and, after some back and forth with a customer service agent, was given a goodwill credit in the form of an e-voucher for future travel. (Air Canada’s general tariffs state that only out-of-town passengers are eligible for baggage-related expenses. Europe makes no such distinctions.)

Passengers wheel their luggage through Pearson International Airport in Toronto during the holiday season, when more travellers pass though the airport than usual.

Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press

Canada’s lack of passenger-rights regulations has long been a source of contention, but in May, the federal government passed Bill C-49, which requires the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) to introduce new regulations that will govern airlines’ obligations to passengers around issues such as flight delays and cancellations, overbooking, tarmac delays, lost and delayed baggage, carriage of musical instruments and the seating of children under the age of 14.

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Before they write the new rules, they’re looking to hear from Canadian travellers on what they’d like to see included within a Passenger Bill of Rights. Those submissions, along with opinions from within the airline industry and from consumer-rights groups, will then be used as the basis for the agency’s recommendations, which then go to a vote in the House of Commons.

“We thought it was important to go across the country and to use as many channels as possible for Canadians to give us their input as we consider what should go in,” said Scott Streiner, the CTA’s chair and chief executive. This included in-person sessions in eight Canadian cities (which concluded July 4 in Ottawa), a call-in session on July 5, airport-based surveys, and an online questionnaire and written submissions, which will be available at airpassengerprotection.ca until Aug. 28.

“This is the first time that Canadians are actually going to be consulted on the specifics of air passenger protection rules,” Streiner said. “Up until now, the debates have always been about [whether we] should have a bill of rights. Now, we’re getting down to the details. If your flight has been delayed and it’s for reasons within the control of the airline, what do you think the standards of treatment should be? Food, water, accommodation? What do you think the level of compensation should be? These regulations will set out a minimum level of compensation for situations like that – again, if it’s within the control of the airline.”

The nine-section questionnaire asks specific questions about the services and compensation levels passengers would like airlines to be obliged to provide in the event of delays or cancellations, communication obligations on the part of airlines around these requirements and other topics.

Passengers gaze out a window and busy themselves at the airport in St. John’s, waiting for delayed flights in December, 2007.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Currently, airlines are subject to their own voluntary policies for domestic flights and the Montreal Convention for international flights, though it’s up to passengers to either file a complaint with the CTA or take legal action when airlines do not adhere to those policies. Under that convention, passengers are entitled to up to 4,694 Special Drawing Rights (an international currency current equivalent to $1.86 each, so about $8,730) for delays and 1,131 SDR for baggage-related claims. European Union laws also apply to flights to and from Europe, even for Canadian carriers. But while it may seem as though Canada has lagged on the passenger-rights front, Streiner says an advantage to being late to the game is that the agency can learn from European Union regulations and U.S. rules, which came into effect in 2012, leveraging the strengths and shortcomings of each. “In the U.S., for example, there is no compensation specifically for flight delays and cancellations, but there is in the EU. Now, the U.S. has fairly strong provisions around denied boarding and tarmac delays.”

But while the EU delay and cancellation policy is often touted as a gold standard, some key differences are already clear with respect to what Canada’s will look like. For example, in Europe, mechanical delays are considered to be “controllable” – and thus subject to compensation – because it is the airlines’ responsibility to adequately maintain their planes. Bill C-49 has already defined the scenarios that would be subject to compensation, and circumstances where the airline determines that a plane cannot be flown due to safety are exempt. But Streiner says his mandate does provide the leeway to determine what types of malfunctions might be justified. “We’re asking whether more criteria are required. For example, we had some folks come out to our public consultation sessions and suggest that there be criteria put in place so if a coffee machine on a plane suddenly stops working, the airline doesn’t claim that’s a mechanical malfunction.”

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It’s examples such as that which make Gabor Lukacs, an air-passenger-rights advocate, believe the “decks are stacked” in favour of airlines. But while he’s “skeptical” the public will have much of an impact, he thinks it’s important that Canadians weigh in. “Passengers can make a difference, but not in the way they think,” he said. “Canadians should be asking some tough questions and asserting their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.” If the regulations are not aligned with the consultation results, Lukacs said he would also consider filing a court challenge.

Whatever the new rules, Lukacs and Streiner agree it’s vital that passengers know – and demand – their rights. “One of the things that’s come out is how important it is for consumers to be aware of what the minimums [for compensation] are and how they can seek recourse,” said Streiner. After a “modest” public relations campaign about passenger rights a couple of years ago, he said, “we saw complaints to the CTA jump from about 800 a year in 2013, 2014, 2015 to 6,000 last year. That confirmed our hypothesis that people didn’t know they had rights and there was help available.”

The author cancelled a final pending claim for compensation from Air Canada prior to the publication of this article.

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