Airlines to refund passengers facing lengthy delays, cancellations under new regulations

Travelers at Toronto Pearson International Airport’s Terminal 3 on May 12, 2022.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Airlines will soon be required to provide refunds or alternate flights to passengers whose trips are canceled or delayed by three hours for reasons outside the control of the carriers.

The regulations announced on Wednesday by the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) are a response to the aviation industry’s collapse in the pandemic, in which thousands of flights were canceled and customers were unable to get back their money.

The new rules, which go into effect on Sept. 8, are amendments to the Air Passenger Protection Regulations and are not retroactive.

Until then, passengers whose flights are canceled or delayed by three hours or more for reasons the airline cannot control, including weather or closed borders, are not entitled to a refund. The airline must rebook them on the next available flight.

The change allows customers to choose between a refund or another flight that leaves within 48 hours on the airline in question or a partner airline at no additional cost. Large carriers are required to put customers on competitors’ planes.

“These regulations will close the gap in the Canadian air passenger protection regime highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure that even when cancellations and lengthy delays occur that are outside the airline’s control, passengers will be protected if the airline cannot complete their itinerary within a reasonable period of time,” France Pégeot, chief executive officer of the CTA, said in a statement.

The new rules align with the policy Air Canada adopted last year, said company spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick.

Under pressure from the government, Air Canada and some other airlines agreed to change their policies and offer refunds rather than credits for flights canceled in the pandemic. Ottawa made the refunds a requirement for any government aid to the airlines, which were largely grounded for long stretches. WestJet Airlines, however, did not accept a bailout and declined to give refunds to affected passengers.

On Wednesday, WestJet’s vice-president of government relations, Andrew Gibbons, said the airline is “disappointed” the new rule unfairly makes it the “sole provider of reimbursement” for delays it cannot control. He said the airline relies on government agencies, NAV Canada, Canada Border Services Agency and Canadian Air Transport Security Authority to provide a seamless experience for travelers. These are the agencies that are understaffed and blamed for much of the delays at airports, particularly Toronto Pearson.

“We are disappointed that airlines continue to be singled out as the only point of ownership and accountability for travel in Canada as this must be a shared responsibility by the entire ecosystem,” Mr. Gibbons said.

CBSA and CATSA did not immediately respond to questions.

Omar Alghabra, the Transport Minister, said the changes will help ensure travelers are treated with “fairness and respect.”

“Whether due to a large-scale cancellation or a small incident, we know that sometimes travel doesn’t go according to plan,” Mr. Alghabra said in a press release. “These new regulations will protect travelers in these unexpected situations.”

However, the rules will be of no help to customers who travel this summer and face chaos at Toronto Pearson airport and other hubs. A surge in travel has run into a shortage of staff at government-run security and customs checkpoints, leading to delays, lineups and airplanes being held at gates. Compounding the bottlenecks are COVID-19-related questionnaires and processes.

Between May 1 and June 9, the CTA received 1,402 complaints from passengers about flight delays, cancellations and boarding denials. “Because these complaints are still very new, none have been decided or facilitated yet,” the CTA said in an e-mail to the Globe and Mail.

By comparison, the CTA received 1,196 complaints about airlines in February, 1,337 in March and 1,115 in April. “These are complaints by passengers under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations against airlines, not against airport authorities,” the CTA said, adding it does not have the mandate to resolve passenger claims related to problems with customs, immigration, security or other airport services.

Amid the recent bottlenecks at airports, the airline industry has been pushing for the government agencies to be accountable for the delays stemming from customs and security checkpoints.

“We have seen an increase in [Air Passenger Protection Regulation] related requests as a result of delays and cancellations that have impacted our guests due to long line-ups at security and customs, tarmac holds and missed connections which are outside of our control,” said Morgan Bell, a spokeswoman for WestJet Airlines.

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