Airline passengers walk by a check-in desk at Trudeau International Airport in Montreal, Friday, March 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Airline passengers walk by a check-in desk at Trudeau International Airport in Montreal, Friday, March 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Government docs suggest months of inaction on ‘gap’ in passenger refund rules

NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach says Canadians deserve an explanation as to ‘why it took so long’ to act

Internal documents suggest it took about half a year for the federal government to take action on air-passenger refunds after it first identified “gaps” in the rules.

Emails between Transport Canada and the Canadian Transportation Agency, the federal airline watchdog, reveal that back in May 2020, officials highlighted regulatory blind spots around reimbursing passengers whose flights were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One discussion document, recently released to the House of Commons transport committee, says the pandemic exposed holes in the regulatory framework.

“There are no clear and consistent ground rules for how passengers should be treated in circumstances when it is impossible for the airlines to complete passengers’ itineraries,” the document says.

But the correspondencesuggests the issue barelyresurfaced internally until shortly before then-transport minister Marc Garneau directed the agency on Dec. 21 to strengthen the refund rules, which have not yet been put into place.

Bloc Québécois transport critic Xavier Barsalou-Duval says the government showed“no sign of willingness” to tackle the issue through most of 2020.

“I think he wasn’t super interested,” Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie, who co-chairs the transport committee with her Bloc colleague, said of Garneau.

NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach says Canadians deserve an explanation as to “why it took so long” to act.

“If you just look through the documents, it looks like they took the summer off, almost. It’s troubling because the amount of money that Canadians are owed — most of them are still owed that money — is a huge amount,” Bachrach said.

Earlier this month, Ottawa announced an aid package for Air Canada in exchange for a pledge to refund passengers, among other conditions, but several other airlinesincluding Air Transat and Sunwing Airlines are still refusing reimbursement.

The Air Canada deal came exactly 365 days after the federal government issued an advisory to avoid non-essential travel abroad, as border restrictions and grounded fleets across the globe cratered demand and set off hundreds of thousands of flight cancellations by Canadian carriers over the next 13 months.

Initially, most airlines offered vouchers — travel credit — valid for one to two years, leaving those urgently in need of cash in the lurch.

“Some people may have lost their jobs. And we don’t know when it will be safe to travel again,” said Sylvie De Bellefeuille, a lawyer Quebec-based consumer rights group Option Consommateurs.

“They’re worried about their health and say, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen in two or three years.’”

The emails underscore Canada’s weak passenger protection laws compared to some countries, despite a new passenger rights charter that came fully into effect in December 2019.

Details included in the correspondence note that the United States and European Union require airlines to fully refund passengers “if the airline cancelled a flight, regardless of the reason.” In Canada, however, reimbursement hinges on the tariff — the contract between passenger and carrier — as “no refund obligation” exists.

“Repeatedly the minister already said that he had no ability to mandate the refunds, that the (transportation agency) was an arm’s-length body, that we should look at the waivers that come with the airline tickets,” Bachrach said.

“And yet we see in December that indeed the minister was able to do something. But at that point airlines had been sitting on billions of dollars of Canadians’ hard-earned money in the midst of a pandemic, when a lot of families had been financially devastated.”

The Transport Department said Wednesday that the government has been aware of the refund issue from the outset, “and that’s why we began to assess options and next steps as early as last spring.”

“We will continue to be there for Canadians and we expect airlines to do everything they can to find solutions for their customers,” the department said in an email.

In December, Garneau instructed the agency to craft a new regulation that would provide passengers with refunds when flights are cancelled for reasons outside airlines’ control.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a gap in the air passenger protection framework, which did not foresee the potential for large-scale and lengthy flight cancellations and groundings of air carrier fleets not only in Canada but globally,” he said, using language mirroring what was written in the documents more than seven months earlier.

Scott Streiner, chair and chief executive of the quasi-judicial agency, has said it aims to have the new regulations in place by the summer.

Consumer protection laws in a majority of provinces safeguard passengers’ right to reimbursement, even if that right is not spelled out in the 2019 passenger bill of rights, said advocate Gabor Lukacs.

He questioned the premise of a “gap” in the rules, saying the government is “misleading the public about their rights.”

Consumer Protection BC, a provincial regulator, said in a release Wednesday that airline customers “should be provided with a full refund in the same way they paid, as outlined in the law.”

“If they choose to ignore these laws, we’re willing to take action to bring them into compliance and help get consumers their money back,” said vice-president Shahid Noorani.

For the NDP, the back-and-forth between the Transport Department and the federal transport regulator suggests a relationship that is uncomfortably closer than the term “arm’s length” suggests.

“When you look at the degree of co-ordination and collaboration that’s evident in these documents, I don’t think that’s a fair characterization,” Bachrach said.

The emails were heavily redacted, with Access to Information Act provisions cited above the blackouts.

“It’s unclear whether indeed the redaction reflects information that is commercially sensitive or related to privacy under the relevant legislation, or whether it’s simply embarrassing for the government,” Bachrach said.

“All we get is a black box, literally.”

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Air TravelCoronavirus

Just Posted

Alberta continues to wrestle with high COVID-19 case numbers. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Red Deer up to 858 active cases of COVID-19

Province reports additional 1,799 cases of the virus

ALERT seized drugs and a variety of guns from a home in Lacombe on May 5 after an investigation. (Photo courtesy of ALERT)
Guns and drugs seized in Lacombe

Lacombe Police Service and ALERT worked together in a joint investigation

Best of Lacombe
Vote for the Best of Lacombe Readers’ Choice Awards 2021

Vote until June 6th, and the results will be published June 24th, 2021

Karlee Prins standing in front of Lacombe City Cinema. (Photo Submitted)
Lacombe resident creates Go Fund Me page to help ailing Lacombe City Cinema

Karlee Prins created a Go Fund Me Page the help the local theatre and family who own it

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Trudeau is rejecting accusations from Alberta’s justice minister that his federal government is part of a trio rooting for that province’s health system to collapse due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Alberta justice minister sorry for saying feds, others rooting for COVID disaster

Earlier Tuesday, prior to Madu’s apology, Trudeau rejected the accusations

In this Monday, March 15, 2021 file photo a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine is pictured in a pharmacy in Boulogne Billancourt, outside Paris. Questions remained Wednesday about the future of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in Canada, as Manitoba limited use of the shot and Ontario announced it planned to save an incoming shipment to use as second doses. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Christophe Ena, File
Questions remain about the future of the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot in Canada

More than two million Canadians have received AstraZeneca and 17 have been confirmed to have VITT

Lumber is shown in the back of a van in this recent image provided by the Saskatoon Police Service. The skyrocketing prices for lumber is fuelling a trend that has authorities across the country warning builders to keep their guard up. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Saskatoon Police Service-Const. Derek Chesney *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘It is a gold mine:’ Builders warned of rising lumber thefts across Canada

Many North American mills curtailed production temporarily earlier in 2020 because of COVID lockdowns

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Trudeau is rejecting accusations from Alberta’s justice minister that his federal government is part of a trio rooting for that province’s health system to collapse due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau rejects Alberta cabinet minister accusation PM wants COVID-19 health disaster

Alberta has recently had COVID-19 case rates that are the highest in North America

The RCMP logo is seen outside Royal Canadian Mounted Police "E" Division headquarters in Surrey, B.C., on Friday, April 13, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Jewish group extremely disturbed by reports of Hitler Youth flags in Alberta towns

RCMP spoke to the property owner, who refused to remove the flag

Alberta’s environment department has known for years that toxins from old coal mines are contaminating populations of the province’s official animal, the bighorn sheep. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Craig Bihrl
Alberta government knew bighorn sheep contaminated with coal mine selenium, scientist says

Jeff Kneteman says Alberta Environment has known about the problem in bighorn sheep for years

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau receives his COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccination in Ottawa, Friday, April 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
75% of Canadians need 1st vaccine dose to have more normal summer: Trudeau

The country is on track to hit a major milestone on the road to COVID-19 herd immunity Tuesday, with 40% vaccinated with a 1st dose

Most Read