April 15, 2024

The Liberals have put forward legislation that aims to make good on their pledge to tighten passenger rights rules after a year marked by travel chaos and a backlog of ballooning complaints.

Tabled in the House of Commons as part of a broader budget bill Thursday, the new provisions ratchet up penalties on airlines, shore up the complaint process and target luggage and flight disruption loopholes that have allowed airlines to avoid compensating customers.

The proposed $250,000 maximum fine for airline violations — a tenfold increase over the existing regulations — encourages compliance, said Sylvie De Bellefeuille, a lawyer with the advocacy group Option consommateurs.

So does an amendment placing the regulatory cost of complaints on carriers’ shoulders, she said. In theory, the measure gives carriers an incentive to brush up their service and thus reduce the number of grievances against them.

The new 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 (CTA) should also expedite the process, De Bellefeuille said.

She also applauded the closure of a loophole that has allowed airlines to avoid compensating passengers for delayed luggage, though not for lost luggage.

“This thing was obviously something that was forgotten in the first law,” she said.

A second loophole 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 revised section of that law makes no mention of the loophole and will “allow eventually the CTA to amend the APPR (Air Passenger Protection Regulations),” De Bellefeuille said.

A man with a suitcase beside his head lies down and closes his eyes on a baggage carousel with a Christmas tree in the background and passengers milling around.
A traveler rests their head on the baggage claim at Vancouver International Airport after a heavy snowfall led to a complete suspension of flights on Dec. 20, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The fresh legislation pave the way for the regulator to align its rules with those of the European Union, he said. The EU distinguishes only between flight disruptions that are within the airline’s control — caused by mechanical issues, for example — and those outside its control, such as weather-related delays. In general, only the latter reason relieves a carrier of compensation obligations.

Not all observers found the would-be law so uplifting.

The legislation fails to ensure transparency for the complaints process and leaves too much discretion in the hands of the regulator, particularly when it comes to compensation for flight disruptions, said Gabor Lukacs, president of advocacy group Air Passenger Rights.

Lukacs pointed to one amendment that states the complaints process “shall be kept confidential, unless the complainant and the carrier otherwise agree.”

“Now, airlines are not going to agree to make things public,” he said. “They’re trying to create more smoke and mirrors.”

Lukacs also highlighted language stating that compliance officers “shall deal with complaints in the manner that they consider appropriate,” and argued that stricter guidelines should be imposed on the regulators.

Moreover, he said there is nothing to ensure that the “safety” loophole on flight disruptions will be closed.

The National Airlines Council of Canada, an industry group representing four of the country’s biggest carriers, 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 travelers.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra first pledged in January to strengthen the four-year-old passenger rights charter with legislation.

He also pledged an additional $75.9 million over three years to reduce a complaint backlog that has ballooned to nearly 45,000, more than triple the tally from a year ago.

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