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Major reforms to air passenger rights needed, says House committee report

A parliamentary committee has recommended sweeping changes to Canada’s air passenger rights framework, stressing tougher enforcement and compensation rules around flight delays.

A parliamentary committee has recommended sweeping changes to Canada’s air passenger rights framework, stressing tougher enforcement and compensation rules around flight delays.

Tabled Tuesday, the report comes after chaotic travel seasons over the summer and winter holidays brought on by soaring demand, labour shortages and poor weather.

Its 21 recommendations include bigger monetary penalties, smoother processing of compensation claims and automatic payout offers after cancellations, significant delays or denial of boarding.

It further suggests putting the burden of proof on airlines to show why compensation should not be awarded, and placing the cost of resolving claims to the regulator on the carriers’ shoulders. If the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) determines a customer’s rights have been violated, all passengers on the same flight should be informed and offered refunds or compensation, the report states.

The committee also suggests the federal government consider harmonizing its compensation rules with European regulations even when delays are for safety purposes — a payout exemption the European Union does not allow, but often relied on by Canadian carriers, advocates say.

As of last month, the passenger complaints backlog at the Canadian Transportation Agency topped 42,000, more than triple the tally from a year earlier.

The ballooning backlog means each case now needs more than a year and a half to handle, spurring the committee to recommend a review of the CTA as enforcer. It pointed to potential complaint agency models such as those for telecommunications, television and banking.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has pledged to strengthen the four-year-old passenger rights charter with legislation to be tabled this spring.

He told reporters last month he would close the loophole that allows airlines to deny customers compensation for cancelled flights. The comment came at a press conference where he promised an additional $75.9 million over three years to reduce the complaints backlog.

Gabor Lukacs, president of the Air Passenger Rights advocacy group, called the House of Commons committee report “very strong.”

“A lot of thought has gone into this,” he said.

Lukacs highlighted enforcement, burden of proof in compensation claims, and the loophole letting carriers reject compensation claims by citing “reasons related to safety” — as inscribed in the Air Passenger Protection Regulations — as key areas where the report aims to crack down.

He also questioned whether the complaints model offered by the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services was appropriate to the aviation industry, saying it was less applicable to “evidence-intensive” situations.

WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech said last week the company is asking the federal government to allow airlines to recover passenger compensation costs from other aviation industry partners, if it believes those partners played a role in causing flight delays or disruptions.

In a speech at a Calgary Chamber of Commerce event, he said while he supports the passenger rights charter rolled out in 2019, airlines don’t operate in a vacuum.

“There’s airports, there’s navigation, there’s security, there’s border control, there’s ground handlers,” von Hoensbroech told reporters, adding that none of these parties are subject to the existing passenger protection rules the way airlines are.

“Whatever happens, it’s always the airline, and the airline basically becomes the insurance company for the entire industry.”

In the budget tabled by the Liberals last month, the federal government laid out plans to speed up airport security screening and reduce flight delays. After a year of travel turmoil, the budget promised $1.8 billion over five years for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) to improve passenger screening and shore up security at airports.

It also proposed a new rule requiring airlines and airports to share and report data as a way to cut delays and bolster co-ordination within the industry.

The budget further allows the transport minister to impose a charge on carriers to help cover the costs of resolving passenger complaints. In theory, the measure would incentivize carriers to brush up their service and thus reduce grievances against them.

Both measures were among the recommendations put forward by the transport committee Tuesday.