New data from Transport Canada shows that airlines were responsible for almost 50% of flight delays in 2022.
Of the almost 199,000 delays that took place in the previous year, approximately 87,500, which is 44 percent, were attributed to the airline and not related to safety concerns.
Passengers have vivid recollections of the disorganized travel period that ensued due to extensive flight delays and cancellations in both the summer and December of 2022. Consequently, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) imposed numerous penalties upon Canada’s leading airlines.
Rules that came into force in 2019 — often referred to as the air passenger bill of rights — require airlines to compensate passengers for delays or cancellations that are within their control.
However, when travel started to reach pre-pandemic levels last summer, passengers started to accuse airlines of evading those regulations and refusing to provide them with the compensation they are entitled to.
Consequently, the CTA, which handles the resolution of disputes between airlines and passengers, is currently facing a considerable backlog of 57,000 passenger complaints.
This past spring, the government proposed changes to the air passenger bill of rights. The changes are currently being reviewed by the CTA and aren’t expected to come into effect until 2024.
The government intends to address a loophole in the existing regulations that airlines have utilized to refuse compensation to customers when flight disruptions are necessary for safety reasons.
Airlines would be obligated to provide automatic compensation to passengers unless they can demonstrate that a flight disruption was caused by “exceptional circumstances.”
The CTA suggests that these circumstances encompass weather worries, airport operational problems, and “hidden manufacturing defects” found on an aircraft. Technical issues that are typically encountered during regular airline operations would not be classified as exceptional circumstances.
Airlines express concerns that the implementation of new regulations may compromise safety.
Airlines and other participants in the industry are expressing concerns that the modifications may jeopardize passenger safety.
“We want our pilots to be entirely free from any financial consideration when they take a safety-related decision,” WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech told the Canadian Press in September.
“Punitive measures should never be imposed for safety-related choices.”
According to Andy Gibbons, WestJet’s head of external affairs, the data from Transport Canada demonstrates that airlines do not exploit safety regulations to avoid compensating passengers.
“While we will always prioritize the safety of everyone onboard our aircraft, penalizing safety is a policy proposal that should be rejected by government,” Gibbons said in a media statement. He also argued that airlines have stabilized their operations since the pandemic and have had fewer problems in 2023.
Consumer advocates are skeptical about the assertion that the suggested regulations would compromise safety.
According to Sylvie De Bellefeuille, a lawyer from Option consommateurs, airlines frequently use safety as an excuse to refuse compensation, which she believes is unjustified. She cited instances where airlines argued that staff shortages posed a safety risk, but the CTA ultimately determined that this was not a valid reason to deny compensation.
“She mentioned that passengers have a tendency to perceive anything as a safety concern, hence the problem lies in its broad interpretation,” she stated.
De Bellefeuille said the proposed changes are similar to the rules in the European Union.
She stated that safety was not a concern in Europe, so the argument they presented is not novel. She has previously encountered it and finds it illogical.
Ian Jack, a representative for the Canadian Automobile Association travel agency, reiterated De Bellefeuille’s argument. He mentioned that although safety should never be compromised, Canada has robust regulations pertaining to air safety.
“I believe that the carriers may be attempting to create confusion regarding the presence of effective safety regulations in the country, as opposed to the existence of reliable protocols to safeguard passengers from financial losses when issues arise,” he expressed. “It is important not to mix up these two aspects.”
A spokesperson for federal Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez echoed the argument made by Jack.
In an email, the spokesperson mentioned that it is possible to establish a robust system for air passenger rights while ensuring the safety of air travel.
According to Transport Canada’s data, a significant portion of flight delays, amounting to over 28,000, were attributed to safety concerns. However, this figure represents less than one-third of the total 87,000 delays for which the airlines were held accountable.
Airlines have lobbied the government to compel other players, such as airports and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, to shoulder more of the cost of passenger compensation.
Last month, von Hoensbroech stated in an interview with CBC News Network’s Power & Politics that when we have insufficient staff, we are made responsible for it.
“If a similar occurrence happens, such as when Navigation Canada is understaffed, it is regarded as an unforeseen event beyond human control, akin to an act of God.”
Another 43,000 delays in 2022 were caused by air traffic control and other operational issues.
Nav Canada, the organization responsible for overseeing air traffic controllers in Canada, has been facing a shortage of workers which has resulted in certain delays during the previous summer.
Nav Canada stated that only a fraction of the 43,000 delays in 2022 were caused by air traffic control problems. This is because the category encompasses various other factors, including airport operations.
The company has also mentioned that it is currently providing training to several additional employees in order to fill available positions.
“In an email, a spokesperson from Nav Canada stated that we currently have over 400 employees undergoing training, and we anticipate an additional 600 individuals to join our training programs within the next two years.”
“We prioritize company-wide efforts to ensure adequate support for the expected surge in traffic during peak travel periods. We are dedicated to collaborating with our employees and unions in addressing this matter.”
The spokesperson for Rodriguez mentioned that bill C-52 aims to enhance accountability, transparency, and collaboration among partners in the aviation industry. However, this legislation is still being reviewed by the House of Commons and has only completed the initial reading.
De Bellefeuille and Jack expressed their willingness to consider increased shared responsibility in the air travel sector. However, they both emphasized that it should not be the passengers’ responsibility to determine who should provide compensation.
De Bellefeuille stated that in terms of passengers, their contract is with the airline company, therefore it is not the responsibility of the passenger to determine who is accountable.
Jack said that it doesn’t matter to you whether a purchase you make in a store goes wrong due to the trucking company or the manufacturing plant’s fault. You still hold the retailer responsible.