Scott Streiner, Chairman & CEO of the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) and Marc Garneau, Minister of Transport, launch the final provisions of the Air Passenger Protection Regulations during a press conference at the Ottawa International Airport in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. Steiner says Canada may need to rethink its passenger protection rules after hundreds of thousands flight cancellations prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic left travellers out of pocket. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Scott Streiner, Chairman & CEO of the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) and Marc Garneau, Minister of Transport, launch the final provisions of the Air Passenger Protection Regulations during a press conference at the Ottawa International Airport in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. Steiner says Canada may need to rethink its passenger protection rules after hundreds of thousands flight cancellations prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic left travellers out of pocket. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Watchdog says flight refund rules may need reworking to address possible ‘gaps’

Most Canadian airlines have offered credits for a cancelled flight that are valid for at least two years

Passenger protection rules may need to be revised after hundreds of thousands of flight cancellations prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic left travellers out of pocket, the head of Canada’s transportation regulator said Wednesday.

Scott Streiner, who heads the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), said officials should ask “the obvious question” of why airlines do not have to refund passengers when flights are cancelled for reasons beyond the carrier’s control — such as a global virus outbreak.

“The situation that we’ve encountered over the past several months was unprecedented, it was completely unanticipated,” Streiner said in a phone interview.

“And as a result of it we may need to collectively take a look at the framework that we’ve put in place for air passenger protection and ask ourselves whether there are lessons learned and whether there are any gaps that we need to address.”

READ MORE: Travel will have to wait, despite calls from Canada’s business leaders, Trudeau says

A new passenger rights charter, which fully came into effect on Dec. 15, requires airlines to ensure that customers can complete their itineraries, but does not demand reimbursement.

“I think the question we now have to ask is, what happens if that’s not possible?” Streiner said, referring to completion of itineraries.

Most Canadian airlines have offered credits for a cancelled flight that are valid for at least two years and have kept billions in advance ticket sales amid a collapse of the travel industry.

Advocates say passengers have the right to a refund for services that were never rendered, with some in urgent need of cash amid a recession that pushed the unemployment rate to nearly 14 per cent, the highest rate in at least 45 years.

“The law has always been clear that passengers are owed a refund,” said passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs, citing four CTA rulings. “The deficiency is in the failure to codify this obligation in the new regulations.”

The absence of a refund rule forms part of a larger problem of enforcement in the Air Passenger Protection Regulations, he said.

A February 2019 report by Air Passenger Rights, an advocacy group run by Lukacs, found that criteria for monetary compensation are extremely tough to meet, often requiring passengers to present evidence that is in the hands of the airline.

“It’s heaven for lawyers and class action litigation,” Lukacs said Wednesday.

Since February, passengers have filed a handful of proposed class-action lawsuits claiming airlines have unfairly denied customer refunds. A trio of petitions — two presented in the House of Commons last month — that garnered more than 109,000 signatures have called for customer reimbursement of flights cancelled due to the coronavirus.

The CTA has received a “tsunami of complaints” about airlines in recent months, with more than 93 per cent filed since mid-December, though many came in before the pandemic struck, Streiner said.

READ MORE: Airlines face MPs’ frustration over health concerns, lack of refunds

The watchdog will receive additional funding and hire 34 new staff to its current team of 50 dealing with air travel complaints, he said. The agency has also streamlined its complaints process, introducing a more user-friendly complaint form online along with increased automation.

“We’re not going to be able to get through 14,000, 15,000 complaints in two months, but we are going to throw ourselves into it and we are going to dig through them as quickly as we can,” Streiner said.

The CTA had suspended adjudications on air travel complaints to allow airlines to concentrate their resources on a pandemic response, but hearings will resume officially in early July, he confirmed.

Streiner said customers are entitled to refunds where stipulated in the contract of carriage or “tariff” but identified “ambiguity” in the contracts as an issue.

Multiple airlines have cited statements from the regulator in March and April to justify offers of credit rather than cash back.

“A lot of this has been following guidance of the CTA, where they had come down and said that it was acceptable to issue a travel credit during the time of pandemic,” Swoop president Charles Duncan said in an interview.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Air TravelCoronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A sign indicating a COVID-19 testing site is displayed inside a parking garage in West Nyack, N.Y., Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. The site was only open to students and staff of Rockland County schools in an effort to test enough people to keep the schools open for in-person learning. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
4 more deaths, 54 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

This brings the total to 66 deaths in the region

Caleb Wykes, Jade Daniel and Alicia Dennis celebrate Australia Day at the Fernie Hotel and Pub. (Soranne Floarea/ The Free Press)
Fernie Hotel celebrates the land down under

Sausages sizzled and Vegemite was spread as The Fernie Hotel celebrated Australia Day on Jan. 26.

Teck today announced the development of a new centralized office building in Sparwood, B.C. File photo
What’s in a brand? Sparwood logo turns 10

The five-point star and branding has adorned the district’s properties since 2011

A Half-moon hairstreak butterfly. (Image courtesy of Calgary Zoo)
Parks Canada, Calgary Zoo work to conserve butterflies in Waterton Lakes

Parks Canada will contribute $289,000 over three years for the project

Freshies barista, Craig Stoner at the new cafe location. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)
Freshies settles into new space

The new locatiom on 2nd Ave gives the popular cafe more space

Dr. Penny Ballem, a former deputy health minister, discusses her role in leading B.C.’s COVID-19 vaccination program, at the B.C. legislature, Jan. 22, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C. holds steady with 407 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday

14 deaths, no new outbreaks in the health care system

A Cessna 170 airplane similar to the one pictured above is reported to be missing off the waters between Victoria and Washington State. Twitter photo/USCG
Canadian, American rescue crews searching for missing aircraft in waters near Victoria

The search is centered around the waters northeast of Port Angeles

Interior Health reported two more COVID-19 deaths at Sunnybank Retirement Center in Oliver Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. (File photo)
COVID-19 claims lives of two more South Okanagan care home residents

Five residents of the Oliver care home have died since the outbreak was first declared

Keygan Power with brother Quintin and mom Allison while camping the weekend before Keygan’s brain hemorrhage on Aug. 2, 2020. (Photo Allison Power)
B.C. teen ‘locked inside,’ battling to regain speech after severe brain bleed

16-year-old suffers traumatic loss of function, still plays a mean game of chess

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Jonathon Muzychka and Dean Reber are wanted on Canada-wide warrants. (Courtesy of Victoria Police Department)
Convicted killer, robber at large after failing to return to facility: Victoria police

Dean Reber, 60, and Jonathon Muzychka, 43, may be together

B.C. Premier John Horgan listens during a postelection news conference in Vancouver on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
30% of B.C. recovery benefit applications held up in manual review

The province says 150 staff have been reassigned to help with manually reviewing applications

Adam Dergazarian, bottom center, pays his respect for Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, in front of a mural painted by artist Louie Sloe Palsino, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Kobe Bryant’s presence remains strong a year after his death

Tuesday marks the grim anniversary of the crash that took their lives

Surrey RCMP are investigating after a pedestrian was struck and killed at 183 Street and Highway 10 Friday night. (File photo)

Most Read