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Passengers, advocates cry foul on Air Canada compensation

MONTREAL — Passengers and advocates say Air Canada is giving them the runaround on refunds, compensation and reasons cited for flight delays and cancellations — including a case of harsh weather highlighted nearly two weeks in advance.
An Air Canada jet takes off from Trudeau Airport in Montreal, Thursday, June 30, 2022. Passengers and advocates say Air Canada is giving them the runaround on refunds, compensation and the reasons cited for flight delays and cancellations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL — Passengers and advocates say Air Canada is giving them the runaround on refunds, compensation and reasons cited for flight delays and cancellations — including a case of harsh weather highlighted nearly two weeks in advance.

Despite thousands of scrapped flights and late arrivals, customers are struggling to file successful complaints and navigate the nuances of complex regulations amid the overwhelming surge in summer travel.

The country's largest carrier informed some passengers their flight to Lisbon would be delayed due to "bad weather," 12 days before it was slated to leave Montreal on July 17.

Another traveller recently received a $60 "eCoupon" due to a days-long baggage delay rather than the direct luggage-fee refund she's entitled to under both federal rules and Air Canada's passenger-carrier contract.

"It'd be great if I could get that money back rather than a coupon. Especially since I am still without my bag and fronting interim expenses," said Air Canada Rouge passenger Leanna Durdle.

On Tuesday, the airline cancelled a flight from Nashville to Toronto citing a "technical issue." But data on tracking service Flightradar24 shows the same plane that was scheduled to fly into Nashville for the trip instead took off for Boston an hour after the original departure time, despite the stated mechanical problem.

Liam Walshe, a paralegal who advocates for consumer protection, called the reasons cited "questionable" and "suspect." Technical or mechanical malfunctions do not qualify as within the carrier's control and thus exempt it from having to compensate customers, he noted.

"I was pretty shocked with what I was seeing," he said.

"How would they say it’s for maintenance and then an hour later the aircraft flies to Boston instead? Why wouldn’t they just delay the Nashville flight slightly?"

Walshe said that taken together, the myriad instances of "technical" or "maintenance" issues along with travel vouchers rather than reimbursement create an appearance the airline is trying to avoid "paying out."

"People have been submitting claims and they've been getting denied," he said. "You'll see all kinds of people saying that there’s inconsistent reasons."

Air Canada said in an email the weather explanation on the Lisbon flight was "an incorrect notification" that has since been revised.

"Air Canada fully appreciates the disappointment and inconvenience schedule changes cause customers, and does its utmost to mitigate these regrettable situations," the airline said in a statement.

It notes travellers can request a refund in the original form of payment at any time, and says it will pay additional compensation where due under the passenger rights charter.

The airline has struggled to cope with the traveller tidal wave amid staffing shortages in recent months, with positions from pilots to baggage carriers as well as security and customs agents going unfilled.

The result has been long airport wait times, constant delays and labyrinths of late luggage, along with mounting complaints and compensation demands.

The airline has said its payroll is at 93 per cent of 2019 levels, even as it cut more than 15 per cent of summer departures. Announced last week, that move reduces its flight schedule to far below 80 per cent of pre-pandemic figures, which it had been operating at since late spring.

Meanwhile the federal government says nearly 1,200 screening officers have been hired since April — though not all have clearance to work the scanners — and 700-plus student border officers have taken up spots at checkpoints.

Yet the travel turbulence continues, with Air Canada racking up a higher share of flight delays — about two-thirds — than any other large airline worldwide for four days in a row starting Saturday. Other carriers and airports are also experiencing inordinate hold-ups, from London's Heathrow to China's Guangzhou.

Gabor Lukacs, president of the Air Passenger Rights advocacy group, says travellers' frustration underscores the complexity — and loopholes — of Canada's three-year-old Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR).

For example, travellers have no ready way to disprove an airline's claim that mechanical issues are behind a delay and that no cash is owed.

"These are not easily understandable, easily enforceable rights. It’s a sham," Lukacs said, pointing to a small claims court decision in Nova Scotia from July 2021.

"When consumer protection is the intended outcome of a regulatory regime, it should be assumed the regime will be in plain language, easy to understand and supports a simple claims process," the ruling reads.

"The APPR, which was intended to accomplish enhanced passenger rights, accomplishes none of these. The language is complex and legalistic; one needs detailed or specific knowledge to invoke the claims system; and the process to seek compensation, once invoked, does not lend itself to quick resolution."

Under the regulations, passengers are owed alternate travel arrangements or a refund — traveller's choice — if they were informed more than two weeks in advance that their flight was cancelled or delayed by three hours or more for reasons within the carrier's control.

If the trip was cancelled within 14 days or less, passengers are owed $1,000 for a cancellation or delay of nine hours or more, and between $400 and $700 for delays of three to nine hours.

No matter how long the notice, a passenger who opts to reject a rebooking should receive $400 in compensation, on top of a refund.

The airline must aim to rebook passengers on a flight on its network that takes off within nine hours of the original departure time. If it can't, it must offer to book them on another airline network "as soon as feasible," free of charge, according to the passenger rights charter.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 7, 2022.

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Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press