'This is really upsetting': Inconvenienced airline passengers struggle to get compensation under new rules

Canada's new air passenger protection regulations promise up to $2,400 in compensation for customers denied boarding; however, some passengers have found that they need to do battle with their airline to collect their cash. 

That was the case for Chelsea Williamson who finally got her denied boarding compensation from WestJet one week ago — only after complaining to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA). 

"[WestJet] called me, and they did say that they made a mistake," said Williamson, who lives in Edmonton. "It stinks that they weren't willing to co-operate with me this way before I actually filed a complaint."

The CTA reports it has received 147 passenger complaints concerning denied boarding issues since the new rules came into effect on July 15. Sixty-seven of the complaints involve Air Canada and 24 involve WestJet, while the rest are scattered among 27 other airlines.

Consumer advocate John Lawford said the complaints are inevitable, both because of airlines adjusting to the new rules, and what he believes is a reluctance among some carriers to embrace the regulations — which include hefty compensation for mishaps, such as lost baggage and flight delays. 

It's early days, but I still see some reticence on the part of the airlines. - John Lawford, executive director of Public Interest Advocacy Centre

"It's early days, but I still see some reticence on the part of the airlines," said Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

'We failed to meet our obligations'

All the major Canadian airlines have told CBC News they intend to fully comply with the regulations. 

But Williamson felt WestJet wasn't playing fair after she and her husband were bumped from their flight on July 22. Instead of receiving the $900 each in compensation they believed they were owed, the airline offered them $250 in travel vouchers.

The couple's journey began when they tried to board the first leg of their flight from Edmonton to Venice and were told that WestJet had switched the aircraft to a smaller one, so they had lost their confirmed seats.  

 "We must have been at the bottom of their boarding priority list," said Williamson. 

The newlyweds were on their honeymoon and, because they were put on a later flight, they arrived in Venice around five hours later than expected.

Submitted by Chelsea Williamson

Under the new regulations, denied boarding passengers are entitled to $900 for a delay under six hours.

But when Williamson complained to WestJet by email and demanded compensation, she was told the couple didn't qualify because their rebooking was a pre-planned schedule change. 

When Williamson argued that their "schedule change" occurred last-minute, the airline responded that it was actually classified as a flight delay or cancellation.

I was getting a different answer from WestJet every time I contacted them. - Chelsea Williamson

"I was getting a different answer from WestJet every time I contacted them."

After filing the complaint, WestJet eventually paid Williamson and her husband $900 each and offered an apology. 

"Following an internal investigation, we recognized that we failed to meet our obligations to these guests," said spokesperson Morgan Bell in an email to CBC News. 

Williamson's case has triggered a CTA investigation into whether WestJet's policies on flight changes comply with the new regulations. The airline said it's co-operating with the inquiry. 

Submitted by Chelsea Williamson

Show me the money

Marc Belanger of Prince George, B.C., also discovered collecting his compensation wasn't an easy process. 

He and his wife were denied boarding on the first leg of their Air Canada flight from Prince George to Quebec City on July 19.

Because the plane was overbooked, and the two were put on a later flight — delaying their arrival by more than 13 hours — Air Canada promised them each $2,400 in compensation: the amount that must be paid when denied boarding passengers are delayed by more than nine hours. 

"I said, 'Oh, that's nice,'" Belanger said. 

But he began to lose faith when the money didn't materialize the following month. In mid-August, he said he complained by phone and by email to Air Canada, and when the cash still hadn't arrived by September, he contacted CBC News.

"It's such a little amount of money for a company that size. I don't understand what the problem is," said Belanger. "This is really upsetting."

According to the new regulations, passengers must receive compensation within 48 hours of being denied boarding.

With any new regulations of such complexity it is only reasonable to expect that initially, in some cases, interpretation of the new rules and processing may sometimes take time. - Peter Fitzpatrick, Air Canada spokesperson

Air Canada told CBC News that the compensation had been sent. Belanger did finally receive two cheques totalling  $4,800 on Monday — more than eight weeks after he and his wife were denied boarding. 

"I don't think it's acceptable," said Belanger, who believes that he may never have received the cash if he hadn't complained.

When asked about the delay in compensation, which contravenes the new rules, Air Canada responded that it's committed to full compliance, but that, inevitably, there'll be some hiccups as airlines adjust to the long list of regulations. 

"With any new regulations of such complexity it is only reasonable to expect that initially, in some cases, interpretation of the new rules and processing may sometimes take time," said spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick, in an email.

More complaints to come?

Lawford believes the CTA will be swamped with complaints from passengers following the new regulations, the second part of which, covering delays and cancellations, take effect in mid-December.

To cope, he believes the agency needs to create a streamlined process to handle the deluge of unhappy passengers trying to collect their cash.

"There has to be a very efficient, call-centre based, neutral section that does these complaints and is sitting there, waiting for them," Lawford said.