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COLUMN Carol Hughes on protecting travellers rights

Travellers’ woes proof better passenger protection needed, says Algoma - Manitoulin - Kapuskasing Member of Parliament
MP Carol Hughes
Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes. File photo

Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP, Carol Hughes writes a regular column about initiatives and issues impacting our community.

The holiday season started with quite the bang for many travellers who were hoping to head off on a getaway or join loved ones for Christmas, as a combination of flash freezes, heavy snow and significant wind gusts blanketed much of Canada.

Extreme weather is certainly nothing new to Canadians, and it did play a significant role in grounding flights, stopping trains, leaving hundreds of Canadians stranded, and making travel exceptionally difficult. However, the industry’s lack of clear communication with customers, including unannounced cancellations, lack of service, missing or lost baggage, and other substantial issues, compounded an already stressful situation and made things much worse.  

Now that the snow-covered dust has settled, it appears the Federal government may not have learned any lessons from the travel disruptions that plagued airports since early summer and what their responsibilities are when it comes to issues involving delays, levels of service and disputes.

The stories of travel disruptions range from inconvenient to borderline negligent. Many of us have no doubt heard of the packed VIA Rail train from Ottawa to Toronto that was stuck on the tracks for more than 18 hours before leaving.

There were also stories upon stories of passengers sitting in planes that were stuck on the tarmac for hours on end. For those few who were lucky enough to leave in a reasonable time frame to their destination, many were stranded due to their return flights being cancelled. And a good number of those who were lucky enough to have limited disruptions on the date of travel, were frustrated by other issues, such as lost luggage.

Airlines and the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) have been inundated with complaints from travellers.

Sunwing has reportedly received over seven thousand complaints from customers since holiday travel disruptions began. Last week, France Pégeot, the Chair and CEO of the CTA, which is responsible for consumer protection for air passengers, advised the House of Commons Transport, Infrastructure and Communities committee that they had a current backlog of over 30,000 complaints, which does not include complaints related to the holiday season fiasco.

At that committee meeting, the Transportation Minister, who is responsible for overseeing Canada’s airlines, stated that he found the travel disruptions and passenger treatment 'unacceptable' and that airline protocols need to be reviewed. These travel disruptions clearly show that passenger treatment does need to be considered and prioritized and that current regulations are clearly insufficient at addressing actual customer complaints.

Air Passenger Protection Regulations, which were brought into force in 2019 and have since been updated to include disruptions and cancellations of flights that are outside of the control of airports and airlines (including bad weather), indicate that customers need to be compensated appropriately for those disruptions.

However, in many cases, customers are forced to jump through hoops just to attempt to receive compensation, with some customers waiting up to 18 months to receive adequate compensation.

The Air Passenger Protection Regulations have too many loopholes that allow airlines to avoid compensating customers. The legislation needs to be brought in line with other industrialized nations.

Compensation for customers should be automatic for flight disruptions, with refunds issued directly to the purchaser when airlines can’t meet their obligations to the traveller. Further, any and all loopholes that allow airlines to avoid refunding customers should be closed.

Just as importantly, enforcement needs to be tougher, and it’s vital that the Canadian Transportation Agency ensure they work in the best interests of travellers.

In the past five years, only one carrier, WestJet, has been issued fines for not providing adequate compensation to their customers, regarding a series of flight cancellations in late January of last year, totalling only $11,000. If carriers see little risk in ensuring they adhere to the regulations, then there is no incentive to comply leaving customers with little protection or recourse.

The CTA, as a quasi-judicial tribunal and regulator, has the power to issue stiff fines and penalties when airlines violate the terms of the act, but the act must be enforced, and those 30,000 complaints, whether or not they reveal carriers refusing to adhere to the act, must be addressed.

It’s important that airlines treat Canadians with respect. We know that disruptions can and will happen. We know that bad weather may delay or cancel a flight. But what travellers shouldn’t be left questioning is whether they will receive the compensation that is owed to them.