Air passengers losing patience with enforcement agency as backlog of complaints balloons

Canadians whose travel plans have been derailed by flight delays or cancellations say they’re losing patience with the agency responsible for enforcing compensation rules.

The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) – a quasi-judicial tribunal and regulator tasked with settling disputes between airlines and customers – has been dealing with a backlog of air passenger complaints since new regulations came into place in 2019 that require an airline to compensate passengers when a flight is delayed or canceled for a reason that is within the airline’s control.

But that backlog has spiked in the last few months as a hectic summer travel season has resulted in an increasing number of customers claiming airlines are skirting federal compensation rules.

  • Have you had filed an airline complaint with the CTA and haven’t heard back? Tell us about it in an email to ask@cbc.ca.

The CTA said the backlog of complaints has risen to 18,200 after a spike in new grievances filed in recent months. The agency said 7,500 new complaints were filed between April and July this year, more than half of the amount of complaints it received all of last year.

“The CTA continues to process air passenger complaints as quickly as possible, based on their merit, impartially and in a rigorous manner,” the agency said in a statement.

But those who have recently filed new complaints could be in for a long wait to get a response from the agency.

This graphic shows the compensation air travelers could be entitled to depending on the length of their flight delay. (CBC)

Michelle Jacobs waited nearly a year before hearing back from the CTA, and when she did it was only to confirm that she was filing on behalf of her two children. She filed a complaint in August 2021 after Air Canada canceled the family’s flight from Deer Lake, NL, to Toronto citing staffing issues.

“It’s frustrating,” she said of the CTA process, “I mean there are laws put in place for this type of stuff and it seems that they’re just really holding you off to see if you’ll just go away.”

Jacobs said she had considered giving up her CTA complaint, but after she was contacted last week by the agency she now has a sliver of hope that an investigation of the case is proceeding.

Passenger considering going to court instead

Kevin Smith, who has been fighting Flair Airlines for compensation since an initial flight from Vancouver to Ottawa on New Years Eve was canceled and rebooked the next day, says he’s running out of patience with the CTA.

Smith said he filed a complaint with the agency in early February but has not yet received a response.

While he’s frustrated with Flair continuing to deny him what he said would be fair compensation, he said the CTA not responding “makes everything worse.”

“You can’t rely on the enforcement, the laws are basically meaningless and it’s kind of like the wild, wild west,” he said.

The Canadian Transportation Agency has a case tracker to allow passengers to keep tabs on their complaints. Due to a current backlog, the site only indicates that the agency will process a complaint as quickly as possible. (Submitted by Kevin Smith)

Rather than waiting for the CTA to respond, Smith said he is now considering taking Flair to small claims court, something Gabor Lukacs, founder and president of Air Passengers Rights Canada, has started recommending to passengers who contact him.

“A judge may or may not agree with them but they are going to get a fair and impartial hearing which is way more than they can expect from the agency,” Lukacs said.

While the CTA said it has been able to process complaints faster in recent years, it is currently facing a staffing shortage and attempting to hire more facilitators who can help resolve complaints. The government has allocated funding to the CTA in recent years in an effort to address the backlog, including $ 11 million in April’s budget.

When asked by CBC, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra’s office didn’t say if the government is willing to do more to ensure the CTA can address the backlog and instead said airlines need to comply with regulations.

“Travelers also have rights regarding refunds and these must be respected,” Alghabra’s office said in an emailed statement.

But Conservative transport critic Melissa Lantsman said air passenger protections need to be strengthened because Canadians are currently bearing the brunt of a weak system.

“Whether it’s the CTA, whether it’s the government, whether it’s the airline, there is an abdication completely of responsibility,” Lantsman said.

NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach agreed that regulations and enforcement need to be bolstered and argued that the fact there are so many complaints in the first place is indicative that airlines feel like they can get away with breaking the rules.

“The biggest problem is the airlines are making a mockery of these air passenger protection regulations,” he said.

Both Lantsman and Barchrach said the government needs to provide the agency with the resources needed to ensure passengers are compensated, but Lukacs said the CTA also needs to step up enforcement by issuing more fines when an airline breaks the rules.

Passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs questions the Canadian Transport Agency’s enforcement practices and says the agency should issue more fines when an airline violates air passenger protection regulations. (CBC)

Under the CTA’s regulations airlines could face up to $ 25,000 per incident every time they break air passenger protection regulations, something Lukacs said the agency doesn’t use often enough.

“If airlines knew that they are going to be facing hefty fines for each violation, they would not go that far,” he said.

The CTA recently announced new amendments to the regulations that would require airlines to provide a refund or a rebooking even if a delay or cancellations isn’t within their control. Lukacs said these new changes, which come into effect on Sept. 8, could make it harder for passengers to seek compensation from airlines.

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