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Monday,  May 20, 2024 9:38 PM 

Ottawa announces $75.9M to tackle air passenger complaints backlog, pledges to close “loophole”

Ottawa announces $75.9M to tackle air passenger complaints backlog, pledges to close “loophole”
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra spoke to media on Tuesday (March 14) at Toronto Pearson airport.
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Ottawa has announced $75.9 million in additional funding to ensure the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) has the resources to address passenger rights complaints.

The funding will be delivered over three years, starting in 2023-24, said Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, speaking to media at Toronto Pearson airport on Tuesday morning (March 14).

The high number of flight disruptions that have occurred over the last few months, including the travel chaos that took place over the holidays, has resulted in a “record-number of complaints” to the CTA, Alghabra said.

“These complaints must be answered as quickly as possible,” Alghabra told reporters, later saying that the CTA’s backlog now sits at 42,000 files – “the last time I checked.”

“It’s clear that more resources are needed to clear the backlog,” the Minister said.

The nearly $76 million in funding will go towards hiring roughly 200 more employees at the CTA, which Alghabra said will “significantly” increase the agency’s complaint processing power. 

The Minister also reiterated his promise to beef up Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR), saying that new legislation will be tabled this spring.

READ MORE: Canadians unhappy with lengthy air passenger complaint process 

“Travellers have rights, and these rights must be respected by airlines,” the Minister stated. “When airlines do not provide the reimbursement or compensation to which travellers are entitled, the Canadian Transportation Agency is there to ensure passenger rights are respected.”

The CTA, a quasi-judicial agency, has been dealing with air passenger complaints ever since Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR) were introduced in 2019.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announces $75M to tackle the CTA's air passenger complaint pile. (File photo)

The agency is supposed to enforce rules that require an airline to compensate passengers when a flight is delayed or cancelled for a reason that is within the airline's control.

Airlines must also refund passengers for cancellations and lengthy delays if customers can't be rebooked on another available flight within 48 hours — even when the airline is not at fault due to situations like weather delays or labour conflicts.

Currently, travellers who believe they are entitled to a refund or compensation must first contact the airline who sold them the fare, and if the traveller still believes they have not been provided what they are entitled to, they can file a complaint with the CTA.

Throwing money at the issue

But will throwing money at the issue fix the swelling backlog?

Minister Alghabra told reporters that the strategy is to not only equip the CTA with more resources, but to also improve its processing abilities.

That number of complaints submitted to the CTA rose to more than 30,000 by the end of November 2022 after a stressful summer of flight delays and cancellations that occurred due to a combo of high demand and understaffed airports.

READ MORE: Burden of air passenger rules should be on airlines, not travellers, says Alghabra

That situation produced an “avalanche of complaints” that has stressed the CTA’s resources, Minister Alghabra said Tuesday.

The new funding will give the CTA $25 million more per year and “accelerate the processing of these complaints,” he said.

The Minister noted this action is “only one step” of a package of reforms the government is introducing, which includes giving the CTA more authorities for processing complaints faster.

“I want Canadians to feel confident that we’re taking action and that the CTA is doing whatever they can to process these complaints as quickly as possible,” Alghabra said.

This isn’t the first time Ottawa has thrown money at the problem. The government has allocated funding to the CTA before — including $11 million in last April's budget — to tackle the CTA’s complaint pile.

Minister Alghabra said the some 200 new employees that will be hired at the CTA will focus “exclusively” on processing complaints.

“That will take a massive dent out of the backlog,” he said, telling reporters to “stay tuned" for more updates related to improving the CTA’s operations. 

The Minister couldn’t say how long it would take for the CTA to process all of its files.

Closing a "loophole" 

As for the new APPR legislation coming this spring, it appears the plan is to strengthen rules so complaints against airlines are settled before they reach the CTA.

Alghabra cited an “asymmetry of power” that airlines have over passengers and said the government is working to “rebalance” that power.

The Minister also addressed a so-called “loophole” in the APPR whereby airlines can cite safety-related issues as a reason for flight cancellations and, therefore, skirt compensating passengers.

Will Ottawa close this “loophole?” a reporter asked. 

“The short answer is yes,” Alghabra said. “We are working on strengthening and clarifying the rules…obviously we don’t want planes to fly when it’s unsafe to do so. But there are certain things that are within the control of the airlines.”

Canadians increasingly frustrated

The update comes as Canadians are becoming increasingly frustrated with the time it takes for the CTA to resolve a complaint.

CBC News, through an access to information request, recently obtained four client satisfaction surveys conducted by the CTA and the results show a rising level of dissatisfaction with air passenger compensation rules.

A 2019 survey shows that 25 per cent of passengers were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the time it took for the CTA to process their complaint. That number jumped to 71 per cent in the 2022 survey, CBC reports.

Fines begin to fly

The CTA went easy on airlines for many years – until recently, last month, when it enforced monetary penalties on both WestJet and Sunwing.

WestJet’s fine was related to disruptions that occurred during the summer of 2022 – a turbulent period for air travel as the sector grappled with operational problems amid a spike in passenger demand.

Enforcement officers with the CTA found that the airline failed to provide passengers compensation they were entitled within 30 days, as laid out in the APPR. The agency, as a result, fined WestJet $112,800.

The CTA's penalty against Sunwing, meanwhile, totalled $126,000.

That fine was related to disruptions that occurred over the holidays, during which officers found that Sunwing failed to comply with section 13 of the APPR, which require airlines to provide information to passengers when a delay or cancellation occurs.

Since 2019, the CTA says it has issued 81 cautionary notices, and 33 notices of violation with administrative monetary penalties, totalling $383,580 relating to the APPR.

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