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New protections for air travellers come into force this week — but they don’t go far enough, critics say

New regulations on refunds for air passengers are coming into force this week, but consumer advocates and airlines are raising concerns about the rules.

Since 2019, federal rules have required airlines to compensate passengers for delayed or cancelled flights when those disruptions happen for reasons the airlines themselves can control.

Starting Sept. 8, airlines will have to refund passengers for cancellations and lengthy delays if passengers can’t be rebooked on another available flight within 48 hours — even when those cancellations or delays are not the fault of the airlines themselves.

“It’s a big deal. It’s a win for passengers,” said Tom Oommen, director general of the analysis and outreach branch at the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), a quasi-judicial tribunal and regulator tasked with enforcing the regulations and settling disputes between airlines and customers.

new protections for air travellers come into force this week but they dont go far enough critics say
The Air Canada check-in area is deserted at the Ottawa International Airport in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic on May 16, 2020. The Canadian Transportation Agency says the pandemic exposed a gap in current air passenger protection rules. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Oommen said a gap in the regulations was exposed when airlines began cancelling flights and denying refunds to passengers during the onset of the pandemic. He said the expanded rules also cover other issues, such as weather delays and labour disputes.

But one consumer advocate is less optimistic about the new rules.

Sylvie De Bellefeuille, a lawyer with the Quebec-based advocacy group Option consommateurs, said the 48-hour window still leaves a gap for passengers who may be travelling for short periods of time.

For example, she said, if a passenger intends to fly on a Friday to attend an event on a Saturday but the flight is cancelled, an airline could rebook the passenger for a flight on Sunday and not have to refund the ticket.

“If [the flight] is for a specific event and … you cannot attend, then the flight becomes useless ” De Bellefeuille said.

Oommen said the idea behind the 48-hour period is to give the airlines some wiggle room, given that the regulations cover flight disruptions outside their control.

“Our regulatory framework establishes what I’d call a floor, in the sense that every airline has got to do these things,” Oommen said, adding that airlines may have their own rules regarding refunds and re-bookings in these circumstances.

Airline council say new rules single companies out

Jeff Morrison, president of the National Airlines Council of Canada, said the new rules are unfair because they place the responsibility squarely on airlines when delays or cancellations are caused by other entities, such as security, customs or the airport itself.

“None of those [entities] will have any responsibility in the event of a disruption,” Morrison said. “These new regulations put it all on the backs of airlines.”

new protections for air travellers come into force this week but they dont go far enough critics say 1
Travellers line up at YVR airport in Richmond, British Columbia on Monday, August 29, 2022. The National Airlines Council of Canada says some delays and cancellations are caused by other entities, including airport customs and security. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Morrison said he’d like to see increased service standards for security, customs and airports in addition to the new regulations.

A spokesperson for Transport Minister Omar Alghabra’s office told CBC on background that airlines were consulted on the new rules.

“These regulations are in place to protect travellers and to hold airlines accountable,” Alghabra’s office said in a separate statement.

Further improvements needed, advocate says

Air passenger rights expert Ian Jack said he thinks the new rules would apply only in another pandemic-like situation — when air travel is suspended for an extended period of time — or if an airport is shut down due to something like a natural disaster or a prolonged labour dispute.

Jack said he thinks the new regulations are a slight improvement on the current rules but the CTA needs to take a tougher stance on the airlines.

“That’s got to be the focus now, getting the machinery of this system working the way it’s supposed to,” said Jack, a spokesperson for the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), a non-profit travel agency.

The CTA said it has been dealing with a mounting backlog of complaints as passengers accuse airlines of unfairly denying them compensation.

The government gave the agency $11 million in April’s budget to address the backlog. Oommen said the CTA has made improvements to its dispute resolution process since 2019.

But until the backlog is cleared, Jack said, passengers will still be left without the compensation they’re owed.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” he said.

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