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A look at compensation, accommodation and who gets it when flights are disrupted

A Canadian passport sits on a suitcase in Ottawa on Jan. 17, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A Canadian passport sits on a suitcase in Ottawa on Jan. 17, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Kathleen Lucero wasn't overly concerned when her first flight cancellation rolled in.

She and her son had spent a week visiting family in Calgary and were scheduled to fly with Porter Airlines to Toronto, and onto Ottawa, to get home to Gatineau, Que. on Feb. 26.

Lucero said her itinerary had to be rescheduled due to a flight crew shortage, and the pair were rebooked for Feb. 28. Then March 1. Then March 2.

"It was cancelled three times, rebooked three times," she said last week.

Cancellations and delays are typically an expected part of air travel.

But dozens of people like Lucero sent details of their own travel troubles to CBC Calgary following a story outlining how WestJet sent passengers of a one-hour cancelled flight on an eight-hour bus ride to their destination instead last week.

Tom Oommen with the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) has heard lots of stories, but he said that one was new.

"I haven't personally heard of this occurring before," he said. "But we only hear about things that passengers bring as complaints to us."

Gilbert Proulx/Twitter
Gilbert Proulx/Twitter

Lucero's situation was also unusual.

She ended up calling the airline and booking a flight from Calgary to Toronto Pearson Airport on March 1. Then she travelled south to the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport — about a 25-kilometre drive southeast — to fly to Ottawa.

As her first flight was delayed, she missed the second. So, she booked another hotel room, got on a flight the next morning and made it home on March 2.

Lucero submitted the expenses she incurred — accommodations and meals — to the airline, but she wasn't sure what would be approved.

Bruce Reeve/CBC
Bruce Reeve/CBC

In a statement responding to the situation, Brad Cicero with Porter Airlines said they were sorry to hear about the unusually long delay, adding they would cover all reasonable expenses for accommodation and meals, plus ground transfers in Toronto.

He said their automatic booking system will shift an entire itinerary — or two, connecting flights — if even just one of them is cancelled, so the system might've missed potential ways to shorten her journey. Passengers should look online to see what other options are available or call the airline for help, he said.

There will be additional compensation available to Lucero, Cicero said, for overall flight delays. Lucero just has to submit a claim through their website.

For others who find themselves in unusual travel predicaments, CBC Calgary asked people familiar with the airline industry to break down some of the regulations airlines follow.

Why flights are cancelled

The Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR) — the standards governing airlines operating in Canada — group flight disruptions into three different categories: situations within airline control, within airline control but required for safety, like unforeseen maintenance problems or safety decisions made by the pilot, and outside airline control.

Depending which category your flight falls into, the compensation varies. The airline must tell passengers the reason for the flight disruption, according to the APPR.

Sylvie De Bellefeuille, a lawyer with Option Consommateurs, a not-for-profit organization promoting consumer rights, said the situations within airline control cost the airline the most.

"The one thing that people have to know is that compensation, people have to ask the airline for that. So it's the first step," De Bellefeuille said.

Kyle Bakx/CBC
Kyle Bakx/CBC

At minimum, CTA's Oommen said the regulations require airlines to complete a customer's itinerary.

"When a flight is cancelled or once there's a delay over three hours, an airline has to offer alternative travel arrangements in the same class of service. Using a reasonable route, they must rebook the passenger on the next available flight operated by them or an airline with which they have a commercial agreement," he said.

Airlines are also sometimes required to offer a rebooked flight with a competing airline or at another airport if they can't complete a passenger's trip within a reasonable amount of time.

If passengers aren't satisfied with the alternative travel arrangements, there are circumstances where they can also seek a refund or further compensation.

Compensation differs

In some situations, passengers are entitled to a refund.

For any disruption except those outside an airline's control, passengers can seek a refund if the alternative flight offered doesn't meet their needs or if they no longer need to travel because of the delay.

Sometimes, additional compensation is awarded to passengers if a delay or cancellation is within the airline's control. Those amounts — ranging from $125 to $1,000 — depend on the airline (whether it's large or small) and how long the passenger is delayed in reaching their final destination.

CBC
CBC

Crew shortages are generally within the airline's control, according to John Gradek, a faculty lecturer in aviation management at McGill University.

"A recent ruling from the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) on an appeal from a passenger based on this explanation from a carrier has been denied as a valid reason for claiming non-payment of compensation," Gradek said.

"In other words, the carrier is still on the hook for paying compensation."

Airlines also have to offer accommodations, and transportation to those accommodations, if a passenger has to wait overnight, as in Lucero's case.

If you're unhappy with your response

Passengers have one year to file a compensation claim with the airline that operated their disrupted flight, and the airline has 30 days to respond.

If a passenger isn't happy with the response, or the airline hasn't replied, they can file a complaint with the CTA.

But be prepared to wait.

The agency had more than 40,000 complaints pending as of Feb. 28, and the current wait time between when a case is submitted and when it's reviewed is more than 18 months.

They are examining solutions to the wait times, a CTA spokesperson said in a statement, and expect to be able to create efficiencies in the future.

"You can always go to court. Small claims court will take care of it," Gradek said. "It's going to be a bit more complicated, but probably quicker."

About 97 per cent of complaints made to the CTA are resolved informally, with only about 3 per cent going through a formal adjudication process.