Ever since Erin Machette was in high school, a poster of Ireland hung on her wall.
In June, Machette and her husband finally travelled to the land of saints and scholars for their 27th anniversary. But when they arrived in Dublin after a delayed and rescheduled flight, their checked baggage was nowhere to be found.
This led to hours spent in customer service lines, on hold on the phone, and filling out online compensation forms and emails.
Her luggage has now been missing for almost seven weeks.
“We’ve just had radio silence from WestJet,” she said from her home in Port Coquitlam, B.C., about 27 kilometres east of Vancouver.
“Get it together. This is not how you manage a company.”
Machette estimates she has lost $6,000 — including the luggage and its contents, some of which are irreplaceable, and the expenses they incurred while in Ireland without their belongings.
She is one of the thousands of air passengers in Canada who have been frustrated by airlines in light of flight cancellations, delays, and lost baggage.
Disruptions in airline industry behind baggage delays
It’s been a turbulent return to air travel in Canada as airlines ramp up service post-pandemic.
Many like Machette say they have lost faith in Canadian airlines whether from feeling misled over reasons for the cancellations, denied compensation claims, or lowball offers for baggage delays.
In the case of delayed and lost baggage, WestJet admits in a statement it has faced challenges as “a result of a myriad of circumstances that include flight delays and cancellations, resource constraints and ground operations.”
The Vancouver Airport Authority says YVR currently has a 99 per cent success rate for the delivery of outbound baggage, but said in a statement “due to delays and disruptions across the global aviation network, we are seeing delays with baggage arriving at YVR.”
Both WestJet and the Vancouver Airport Authority say they are working to improve baggage service.
‘Hold the airline’s feet to the fire’
From January to July, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) has received 1,176 baggage-related complaints.
Fortunately, air passengers are protected by Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR). In Canada, airlines are required to cover expenses incurred while checked baggage was delayed.
In the case of lost luggage, airlines must cover the cost of the bags, its contents and the expenses incurred while travelling without it.
Passengers must file a request for compensation with the airline within 21 days if their luggage is potentially lost, says air passenger rights expert Gábor Lukács.
“The knee-jerk answers for airlines in many circumstances will be ‘no’. Your job as a passenger is to challenge that and hold the airline’s feet to the fire,” he said.
If the airline denies the request, Lukács says passengers can file a claim in small claims court or file a complaint with the CTA.
Backlog of 15,000 complaints
“Certainly, there’s been an uptick in complaints,” said Tom Oommen, director general with the CTA, although the agency isn’t able to make a direct comparison with previous years because the APPR only came into effect in 2019 — right before the COVID-19 pandemic grounded air travel.
If the complaint is straightforward, Oommen says it should take no more than three weeks to resolve once it’s in the hands of an agent.
However, the CTA is currently dealing with a year-long backlog of 15,000 complaints, he says.
“It does take some time to get to that case in the first place.”
The CTA also has the power to fine airlines that violate regulations through administrative policies.
In the 2021-2022 travel year, the CTA found 831 airline violations, but only 11 monetary penalties were administered.
Lukács says the agency needs to take a firmer stance, adding that fining airlines will encourage them to follow regulations.
“They are not doing their job,” Lukács said. “The Canadian Transportation Agency gets millions of dollars from taxpayers’ money to protect the public.
“It baffles me why there is no proper enforcement.”
But most complaints aren’t black and white, says Oommen, and require interpretation by a panel through the complaint process — whereas monetary enforcement penalties are preferred when there’s an explicit, clear requirement that isn’t being followed.