Surveys show Canadians increasingly frustrated by lengthy air passenger complaint process

A traveller rests their head on the baggage claim at Vancouver International Airport after a heavy snowfall led to a complete suspension of flights on Dec. 20, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
A traveller rests their head on the baggage claim at Vancouver International Airport after a heavy snowfall led to a complete suspension of flights on Dec. 20, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Internal surveys conducted by the agency responsible for enforcing air passenger protection rules shows a growing level of dissatisfaction with the time it takes to resolve complaints.

The quasi-judicial Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) is tasked with enforcing rules that require an airline to compensate passengers when a flight is delayed or cancelled for a reason that is within the airline's control.

Since those rules came into force in 2019, the agency has been flooded with thousands of complaints from passengers who claim airlines have denied them compensation.

CTA officials told a parliamentary committee in November that it can take as long as 18 months to resolve a case.

CBC News
CBC News

The agency's internal client satisfaction surveys — four of which were obtained by CBC News through an access to information request — show an increasing level of frustration with delays since the compensation rules came into effect.

The 2019 survey suggests that 25 per cent of passengers were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the time it took for the agency to process their complaint. That number jumped to 71 per cent in the 2022 survey.

Campbell Hennessy, who waited nearly two years for his complaint to be resolved, isn't surprised by the results. He said the process can almost feel like a court case, given the number of documents that have to be submitted and reviewed at various stages.

"It's quite an onerous process for a citizen to undertake," he said.

But despite the lengthy process, Hennessy said his overall experience with the agency was a good one and the CTA staff seemed knowledgeable.

"From everything I saw, they were helpful, respectful the whole way through," he said.

Roughly 20 per cent of respondents to the three surveys between 2019 and 2021 said they were dissatisfied with the quality of service they received from the agency. Seventy-two per cent of respondents told the 2021 survey they had an good experience overall with the agency.

But the lengthy wait times appear to be having an impact on those favourable reviews. Just over half —  53 per cent — told the 2022 survey they weren't happy with their overall experience.

Government promising tougher rules

Matt Malone, a law professor who filed the access to information request and provided the survey documents to CBC, said the results suggest Canadians are losing confidence in the agency.

"I think the survey numbers capture that Canadians have lost faith in the agency," he said.

For its part, the CTA says it continuously reviews its complaint process to find ways to improve.

"We anticipate that this ongoing review will continue to yield opportunities for process efficiencies," an agency spokesperson said in an email.

Sylvie De Bellefeuille, a lawyer with the Quebec-based advocacy group Option consommateurs, said it's clear the agency is being "overwhelmed" by complaints. She suggested the number of complaints might say more about the airlines than the CTA.

"If the airlines would provide better information and better customer service, maybe we would not need to have so many complaints before the CTA," De Bellefeuille said.

Since this past holiday season's travel chaos, the agency has received more than 10,000 complaints.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has promised tougher rules to make airlines more accountable.

"It is clear that the burden of proof must be on the airlines and not on the passengers. That's exactly what we're going to do," a spokesperson for Alghabra's office told CBC in a media statement. Changes can be expected in the coming "months," the statement says.

Malone said he doesn't believe tougher rules are necessary.

"We don't really need new laws. We need to enforce the laws that we have," he said.