Passenger protection has to be about shared accountability: AirTrav CEO
The Canadian Transportation Agency on Tuesday laid out proposed changes to the passenger rights charter, launching consultations on the overhaul amid skepticism from advocates.
The reforms come after the Liberal government passed legislation last month to toughen penalties on airlines, shore up the complaint process and target flight disruption loopholes that have allowed carriers to avoid traveller compensation.
The amendments to the Air Passenger Protection Regulations spell out the circumstances when an airline would not have to compensate customers, narrowing the field so that most technical problems will no longer give carriers an out.
The new rules would also allow customers to claim a refund if the government raises the risk level of travel to certain countries or if a flight disruption prevents them from completing their trip "within a reasonable time — for example, if the offered rebooking was so delayed from the original departure time that the trip would no longer serve the passenger's original purpose." The current threshold is 48 hours.
Further, the changes require more timely information about disruptions from airlines and cap at two the number of flights in a row where carriers can cite "knock-on effects" caused by a problem elsewhere, such as inclement weather, as a reason to deny compensation.
The complaints backlog at the regulator now tops 52,000, roughly triple the tally from a year ago and requiring two years on average per case.
The tally steadily ticked up after last summer's airport chaos and further turmoil over the winter holidays. While traffic has flowed much more smoothly this travel season, airlines including Air Canada routinely see the proportion of on-time arrivals fall below 50 per cent as they continue to work through post-pandemic hitches.
“We’re in a kind of a mess," said John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
He cast doubt on whether the so-called safety loophole for compensation was really shut tight.
The bane of many passengers over the past few years, it has allowed airlines to deny customers compensation for flight cancellations or three-hour-plus delays if they were "required for safety purposes," as stipulated in the Canada Transportation Act.
The proposed changes scrap that safety provision. But Lawford said the list of "exceptional circumstances" partly walks back the move.
"We're going to have a list of things that qualifies as exceptional circumstances — and then listing almost everything that was in the previous regime."
The list of exceptions that clear airlines of that obligation includes "hidden manufacturing defects" — potentially comparable to the mechanical issues frequently cited by carriers.
"What's a hidden defect? Are we talking latent and patent defects and getting into all that (stuff) about products liability law?" Lawford asked. Enforcement on that front would also be tough, he said.
"That’s not an exception that’s recognized in Europe," he added, citing what's sometimes referred to as the gold standard of passenger protection regimes.
However, the list does exclude "technical problems that are an inherent part of normal airline operations."
The National Airlines Council of Canada, an industry group representing four of the country's biggest carriers, has denounced the potential scrapping of safety concerns as an exception to compensation requirements.
"No airline should be penalized for adhering to the highest standards of safety, whether that is due to weather, mechanical issues or other safety-related constraints," council president Jeff Morrison in a statement in April.
The route to a better travel experience runs through airport upgrades and greater accountability across the range of aviation players, according to the council.
Morrison has also said airlines should not shoulder sole responsibility for all organizations in the overall system, over which they have no control.
Included in the list of exceptional circumstances are "airport operational issues for which the airline is not responsible." It remains to be spelled out what those issues are — for example, whether they would include a dearth of air traffic controllers that results in hundreds of disruptions, a problem that has played out in recent weeks.
The transportation agency kicked off 30 days of public consultations on the proposed reforms Tuesday.
A second round of consultations by the Canadian Transportation Agency will follow a set of draft regulations, set to be published after initial public consultations wrap up on Aug. 10.
The new rules are expected to be in force by the end of the year.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2023.