An air passenger rights activist says he briefed the federal government on reimbursement issues in the industry more than a year before the pandemic shed light on the extent of the problem.
The president of the organization Passenger Rights, Gabor Lukacs, said he spoke with experts from the Ministry of Transport and the Canadian Transportation Agency in January 2019 about the ambiguities in the new charter on the protection of air passengers.
“The failure to clearly address the issue of reimbursements was precisely part of the discussions,” said Lukacs, adding that the subject chipped away at the first half of a 90-minute conference call held on January 17, 2019.
In February 2019, before the charter came into effect, the Passenger Rights organization wrote to the Transportation Agency that the Air Passenger Protection Regulations gave “the false impression that airlines were free to act as they please ”in reimbursing passengers for canceled flights.
“Loopholes” in the regulations
Internal documents from Transport Canada and the Transportation Agency seem to indicate that the government took more than seven months to react after learning of the “loopholes” in its regulations.
The correspondence, recently unveiled in parliamentary committee, reveals that officials had detected certain blind spots affecting the issue of passenger reimbursements due to the pandemic, as early as May 2020. However, nothing was done to correct the problem before December latest.
And Gabor Lukacs reiterates having alerted Ottawa on his side long before the health crisis struck, giving the government ample time to prevent such a fiasco where thousands of customers find themselves deprived of reimbursements since the cancellation of the majority of flights of the Last 14 months.
Cause not attributable to the carrier
Affected by border restrictions and travel warnings, airlines have repeatedly cited the Transportation Agency to justify their refusal to reimburse their customers.
“Certain airline tariffs provide for reimbursements in certain situations, but could contain articles which may release the airline from such obligations in cases of force majeure”, reads a message published on the portal of the Office of transport as of March 25, 2020.
The Air Passenger Charter stipulates that carriers must offer compensation to travelers in the event of delay or cancellation the cause of which is attributable to the company. However, refunds are not mandatory if the situation is related to a weather cause, an unstable political situation in a state or even a mechanical issue.
However, other long-standing rules, under the Canada Transportation Act, require conditions to be “just and reasonable”. The Transportation Authority has ruled in favor of customers’ reimbursement rights in at least four cases over the past 17 years.
In a 2013 ruling against Porter Airlines, the agency said it was “unreasonable for Porter to refuse to refund the fare paid by a passenger as a result of a flight cancellation” even though the cause was out. control of the company. But unlike the courts, the decisions of the office are not constrained by case law established by previous cases.
The multiplication of cases remains a strong argument, in the opinion of Gabor Lukacs.
Although the obligation to reimburse travelers is real, regardless of its partial exclusion from the passenger charter, Mr. Lukacs believes that much confusion could have been avoided if the authorities had clearly formulated the rule.
New rules to come
On December 21, the then Minister of Transport, Marc Garneau, asked that the requirements on customer reimbursement be tightened, but nothing has yet been put in place.
By email, the Transport Office said it had established the rules according to the already existing legal framework, which “does not [nous] not allow claiming reimbursements for flight disruptions caused by reasons beyond the control of the air carrier ”.
The board now says it is working on the development of new rules following the mandate received from the previous minister. Reimbursement of passengers would become mandatory as soon as a flight is canceled, for whatever reason, or even when the itinerary is only delayed for a period deemed sufficiently long.
To add to the confusion, provincial consumer rights organizations have added their voices to the debate by providing further arguments.
In Quebec, Sylvie De Bellefeuille, lawyer at Option consommateurs, pointed out that the Civil Code was much less ambiguous than the passenger charter. “I don’t see how [les transporteurs] might take the money and not provide the service, ”she said. “The Quebec law is very clear. “
Air Canada and Transat have set up an assistance plan with the federal government. Ottawa will lend them billions of dollars in return for promising to reimburse customers, restore regional links and maintain jobs.
Other carriers, including Sunwing, have yet to offer customer reimbursement plans.