For Scott Aalgaard, it doesn’t add up.
On the morning of July 5, Air Canada informed Aalgaard by email his flight that day from Toronto to Hartford, Conn., had been delayed due to “an unforeseen maintenance issue.”
That afternoon, the reason had changed to either “staffing constraints” or “health and safety initiatives.”
Three days later, Air Canada informed Aalgaard he doesn’t qualify for compensation because his flight was cancelled (instead of delayed) due to a “labour dispute” that was outside the airline’s control.
Aalgaard, a Canadian from B.C. currently living in Middletown, Conn., says the new explanation makes no sense.
“There was no indication that there was any sort of labour dispute,” he said. “It feels to me like the company is throwing darts at a big poster on the wall, trying to pick out reasons and see what will stick.”
The recent travel chaos at some Canadian airports has led to a spate of flight delays and cancellations. And that has sparked a spate of complaints from passengers that some airlines are providing suspect reasons why they were denied compensation for flight disruptions.
Under federal regulations, airlines must compensate passengers up to $1,000 for flight delays of three hours or more.
Because Aalgaard’s flight was delayed by six hours, he, his wife and daughter, whom he was travelling with, would each get $700. However, airlines only have to pay up if the reason for the delay was within their control and not for safety reasons, such as unforeseen mechanical problems.
Aalgaard has filed for compensation with Air Canada despite its claim his flight isn’t eligible. If that doesn’t work out, he plans to file a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA).
“I don’t want Canada to be a place where big companies can just make up the story as they go along,” he said.
A demand for more details
Aalgaard’s not alone. Shortly after Canada launched its flight delay compensation rules in 2019, thousands of air passengers flooded the Canadian Transportation Agency with complaints they received inadequate reasons for denied compensation.
In November 2021, following a lengthy inquiry that involved all of Canada’s major airlines, the CTA announced it found no evidence the airlines “intentionally misled passengers.” However, the agency said much of the information provided to passengers explaining their flight delays “was inadequate, terse and unclear.”
As a result, the CTA clarified that airlines must explain in “sufficient detail” the reason for a flight delay.
Consumer advocate Tahira Dawood says passengers need that information to assess whether they should dispute their case.
“They cannot challenge [the airlines] if they have limited information, or they do not themselves understand what they’re hearing from the air carriers,” said Dawood, a lawyer with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
Connie DeMelo of Brantford, Ont., was upset when WestJet rejected her claim for compensation. DeMelo and her husband’s flight from Honolulu to Toronto on May 28 was delayed for almost six hours.
If the delay was caused by WestJet, DeMelo and her husband would each get $400. However, the airline told her in an email that the flight disruption “was outside WestJet’s control.”
WestJet provided no specific reason for the delay.
“They don’t want to take responsibility,” said DeMelo. “If they did give me a reason, I may pursue it even further. But at this point, I don’t know what I’m pursuing.”
Air Canada passenger Joshua Cohen received a more detailed explanation why his May 21 flight from Chicago to Toronto was cancelled, but he’s still dissatisfied.
Cohen was rebooked on a flight the following day. He said an Air Canada employee at the Chicago airport assured him the airline would cover his hotel and food costs for the night.
However, when Cohen submitted his expenses for $533.73 US, Air Canada responded by email that he wasn’t eligible for compensation. The airline said his flight cancellation was due to “unforeseen staffing issues” that arose due to the impact of COVID-19, and were outside the airline’s control.
He was offered instead a $100 flight voucher.
“That’s an absolute slap in the face,” said Cohen, who lives in Toronto. He argues staffing issues are within an airline’s control.
“They’re trying everything not to compensate their passengers and try and save some money. It’s just not acceptable.”
CTA says file a complaint
WestJet and Air Canada declined to comment on the specific cases in this story. Both airlines said they adhere to Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations and that they’re currently operating in a challenging environment as the travel industry recovers.
The Canadian Transportation Agency said dissatisfied passengers can file a complaint, the outcome of which may help add clarity to the compensation regulations.
“An important part of our regime is the CTA making decisions on cases and airlines taking account of those decisions in their future actions,” said CTA spokesperson Tom Oomen.
This week, the CTA issued a decision in a compensation case, ordering WestJet to pay $1,000 to a passenger following a 21-hour flight delay.
According to the CTA’s decision, WestJet had previously told the passenger he wasn’t entitled to compensation because his original flight had been cancelled for safety reasons due to a crew shortage.
The CTA concluded that crew shortages are generally within the airline’s control and that WestJet “did not sufficiently establish” that the flight cancellation “was unavoidable despite proper planning.”
Cohen says he plans to file a complaint with the CTA, demanding compensation from Air Canada for both his expenses and $1,000 for a flight delay of more than nine hours.
Passenger DeMelo has already filed a CTA complaint.
They may have to wait a while for results. According to the agency, since Dec. 15, 2019, it has received more than 5,154 complaints on the issue, and 70 per cent (3,606) of them have yet to be resolved.