Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat, Porter hit with $45K in fines for violating new passenger protections

WestJet, Air Canada, Air Transat and Porter Airlines have been hit with fines totalling $45,000 for failing to properly display notices about passenger rights at various Canadian airports.

The fines are the first monetary penalties the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) has doled out to airlines for violating the new federal Air Passenger Protection Regulations, the first phase of which took effect on July 15.  

According to the regulations, airlines operating flights to or from a Canadian airport must display a notice at check-in, self-service kiosks and boarding gates, informing passengers that if they're denied boarding, or their luggage is lost or damaged, they may be entitled to compensation.

Inconvenienced travellers can receive up to $2,400 for being denied boarding and up to $2,100 for luggage mishaps.

The CTA issued its fines on Aug. 27. WestJet received the biggest penalty: $17,500 for seven infractions where the airline failed to post the passenger rights notice at airports in Halifax, Calgary, Edmonton and Quebec City.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press

Air Canada was hit with a $12,500 fine for five infractions at the same airports.

Air Transat and Porter both face $7,500 in fines for three infractions each at two different Canadian airports. 

The CTA charged each airline $2,500 per infraction — much less than the $25,000 maximum under the regulations. 

'How hard is it?'

Consumer advocate John Lawford said the fines seem low, but the CTA did the right thing by taking action. 

"How hard is it to put a notice up that says, 'You have rights under the new airline passenger regulations?'" said Lawford, who is executive director of the Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

"Telling people they have rights is the first step before people can vindicate their rights."

Lawford said he's not surprised by the spate of violations because some airlines have made it clear they oppose the new regulations. 

"I imagine CTA has other evidence that they're not following the regulations as well and this is a shot across the bow," he said of the fines.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Before the rules took effect, Lawford suggested that some airlines might try to defy them while a legal battle to quash the regulations is before the court. 

In June, 17 applicants — including Air Canada, Porter Airlines and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) — argued in a Federal Court of Appeal filing that the Air Passenger Protection Regulations are "invalid" because they violate international agreements. 

WestJet and Air Transat aren't named in the filing, but they are both IATA members.

The CTA and Canada's attorney general claim the legal challenge is "ill-founded" and are trying to get it dismissed. 

Airlines respond

Despite the court challenge, each of Canada's major airlines told CBC News in July that they will comply with the new air passenger regulations.

Although they currently face fines for violations, WestJet, Air Canada, Air Transat and Porter each stressed to CBC on Wednesday that they are making every effort to abide by the rules.

Air Canada pointed out that complying with all the intricacies of the new rules isn't as simple as it may seem. The CTA is rolling them out in two phases, and the first phase, now in effect, covers a number of passenger issues including luggage, denied boarding, tarmac delays and communicating flight changes. 

"We had to review and adjust more than 400 individual items and procedures across our entire system in order to comply with the requirements," Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said in an email. 

"With new rules of such complexity, there are always questions of interpretation, so we are reviewing the CTA's decision."

Air Transat also said it's reviewing its "alleged" violations. "Upon completion of this evaluation, Air Transat will put in place all necessary corrective actions if needed," spokesperson Odette Trottier said in an email.

WestJet said it's taking action now. "We are working diligently through each individual airport community in order to ensure that WestJet can be compliant," wrote chief operations officer, Jeff Martin in an email. 

Porter called the violations "minor communication issues" and said that it immediately corrected the problem.

The CTA declined to comment on the fines except to say in an email that "the penalties speak for themselves."

The first case

This isn't the first time an airline has faced CTA scrutiny since the regulations took effect. Last month, the agency announced that it had launched an inquiry after a pair of honeymooners from Edmonton showed up at the gate for a WestJet flight only to learn they had been rebooked on a later flight without any notice.

The couple argues they were denied boarding and are entitled to much more compensation than what WestJet offered them: $125 each in travel vouchers. 

The CTA is currently investigating whether the airline's decision in this case violates the regulations. 

A WestJet spokesperson told CBC last month that the airline is co-operating with the CTA and declined to comment further while the investigation is ongoing.

CBC