Airlines ‘left government no choice’ but to beef up passenger rights: Minister

the federal minister laid out reforms that put the onus on airlines to show a flight disruption is caused by safety concerns or reasons outside their control

By Christopher Reynolds in Montreal

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra says airlines’ use of loopholes around traveller compensation “left government no choice” but to strengthen passenger rights rules.

Amid a massive complaints backlog, Alghabra said Monday the COVID-19 pandemic and travel chaos over the past year exposed gaps in the Liberals’ passenger rights charter. Carriers frequently cited safety as the reason for last-minute cancellations and delays, relieving them of their obligation to pay compensation to customers, he said.

At a news conference in Ottawa, the federal minister laid out reforms that put the onus on airlines to show a flight disruption is caused by safety concerns or reasons outside their control.

“This means there will be no more loopholes where airlines can claim a disruption is caused by something outside of their control for a security reason when it’s not. And it will no longer be the passenger who will have to prove that he or she is entitled to compensation. It will now be the airline that will need to prove that it does not have to pay for it,” he said.

“I really think airlines left government no choice, after what we saw, to further clarify the rules and make sure that passenger rights are protected.”

Currently, a passenger is entitled to between $125 and $1,000 in compensation for a three-hour-plus delay or a cancellation made within 14 days of the scheduled departure — unless the disruption stems from events outside the airline’s control, such as weather, or a safety issue such as mechanical problems. The amount varies depending on the size of the carrier and length of the delay.

Tabled in the House of Commons as part of a budget implementation bill Thursday, the amendments also ratchet up the maximum penalty for airline violations to $250,000 — a tenfold increase — and put the regulatory cost of complaints on carriers. In theory, the measure gives airlines an incentive to brush up their service and thus reduce the number of grievances against them.

The legislation further demands that airlines institute a process to deal with claims and respond to complaints with a decision within 30 days. The establishment of “complaint resolution officers” at the Canadian Transportation Agency should also expedite the process for complaints, as should a 60-day maximum for the regulator to handle them, some advocates say.

The complaints backlog at the agency now stands at about 45,000, more than triple the tally from a year ago and requiring at least 18 months on average per case.

Alghabra told reporters the new provisions are “not meant to demonize airlines” or their employees, but said “there may be some, mostly airlines, who claim that we are unfairly targeting them.”

The National Airlines Council of Canada, an industry group representing four of the country’s biggest carriers, has said the government should focus on other priorities such as airport upgrades and warned that the cost of tougher passenger protections could trickle down to travellers.

NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach said the proposed law still leaves the so-called safety loophole in tact and falls short of European passenger rights standards.

“When we look at the European model, it’s been working for over a decade. And I can’t explain why the minister hasn’t chosen to emulate that model. He’s trying to reinvent the wheel and it’s not necessary.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 24, 2023.