May 29, 2023

Air Canada and WestJet begin legal battle to overturn orders to compensate passengers for canceled flights | CBC News

The battle over compensation claims for canceled and delayed flights has reached a federal appeals court.

Air Canada and WestJet have both launched a legal battle to appeal separate decisions by the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) that ordered the airline in each case to compensate one or more passengers $1,000 for a flight canceled due to understaffing.

Both airlines argue in court filings that they shouldn’t have to pay because the CTA — Canada’s transportation regulator and quasi-judicial tribunal — misinterpreted Canada’s compensation rules.

John Lawford, a consumer advocate and lawyer, said if the airlines win their appeal, it could affect other claims for compensation for flight disruptions.

“Basically, any time an airline has a staffing shortage, that could be … an event outside of their control, and therefore all of these claims would fail,” said Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Center (PIAC). “I think these petitions … show that they, the airlines, are very opposed to paying compensation.”

John Lawford, director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, says if WestJet and Air Canada are successful in appealing recent Transport Canada decisions, it could affect other claims. (Christian Patry/CBC)

WestJet and Air Canada told CBC News they comply with the Canadian Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR). WestJet said it has launched its petition to ensure the rules are applied fairly.

“There is no one-size-fits-all crew issue, and we believe CTA is committed to ensuring that all crew issues are the same,” said Andy Gibbons, WestJet’s vice president of government relations.

WestJet ordered to pay $1,000

In accordance with the APPRairlines must pay compensation—up to $1,000—only if the flight delay or cancellation is within the airline’s control and not required for safety reasons.

The CTA said it has received more than 16,000 air passenger complaints about flight disruptions since May.

The CTA’s decisions in the WestJet and Air Canada cases, released last summer, were meant to help clear the air about compensation rules for flight disruptions caused by crew shortages.

The agency clarified that personnel problems are considered under the airline’s control and cannot be classified as safety issues, unless the airline can prove otherwise.

The WestJet case involved passenger Owen Lareau, whose July 2021 flight home from Regina to Ottawa was canceled, causing a 21-hour delay.

According to the CTAWestJet argued that the pilot had become ill about an hour before takeoff and a replacement could not be found in time, making the flight cancellation a safety issue that did not merit compensation.

But the CTA ruled that WestJet “did not sufficiently demonstrate” that the cancellation of the flight was unavoidable, so it ordered the airline to compensate Lareau $1,000.

Andy Gibbons, WestJet’s vice-president of government relations, says Transport Canada should not penalize airlines for canceling flights for safety reasons. (CBC)

WestJet sought permission to appeal the decision in August, and a federal appeals court granted it last month.

“Basically, we believe the cancellation of this flight was a safety decision and we stand by it,” said WestJet’s Gibbons. “The original purpose of the APPR was to protect consumers from commercial decisions by airlines, not to penalize airlines for safety decisions.”

Gibbons also suggested that airfares could rise if the CTA continues to generalize crew shortages under the airline’s control.

“We have an obligation to keep costs down, and that has to be balanced against the fairness of existing compensation systems.”

The CTA and the passengers involved in both cases declined to comment in court.

Air Canada ordered to pay $2,000

In Air Canada’s case, passenger Lisa Crawford and her son were delayed nearly 16 hours after the airline canceled an August 2021 flight from their home in Fort St. John, BC to Halifax.

According to the CTAAir Canada argued that the pilot was unable to complete the required training on time and the airline was unable to secure a replacement, so the cancellation of the flight was beyond its control.

But the CTA ruled that Air Canada failed to provide evidence that “demonstrated that the crew shortage was unavoidable despite proper planning,” so Crawford and her son must be paid $1,000 each.

Air Canada last month asked the courts for permission to appeal the decision and is awaiting approval.

SEE | Air Canada, WestJet fight over customer compensation decisions:

Air Canada and WestJet fight customer compensation rulings

Both WestJet and Air Canada are launching a legal battle to appeal recent rulings ordering them to compensate passengers. If the airlines are successful, it could affect other claims, experts say.

In its appeal, the airline argues that the CTA cannot assume that the crew shortage is under the control of the airlines and then put the onus on them to reverse it.

“It has interpreted the APPR in a way the act did not intend and placed an unattainable burden of proof on airlines,” Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said in an email.

WestJet makes a similar legal argument in its appeal.

PIAC’s Lawford suggests that the CTA’s request for evidence was fair.

“It’s a reasonable proposition for the regulator to say we expect you to have plans for staff shortages,” he said. “The agency only asked them to provide evidence that they tried.”

Another appeal

Canada’s air passenger protection regulations are also the subject of another legal battle.

In 2019, Air Canada and Porter Airlines, along with more than a dozen applicants, including the International Air Transport Association, took the initiative in a federal appeals court to overturn several orders.

Plaintiffs argue that the APPR is “invalid” for international flights because it differs Montreal Conventionan agreement adopted by many countries – including Canada – that determines airline liability for flight disruptions.

According to the Montreal Convention, air passengers can only receive compensation for flight disruptions if they receive proves that he has suffered a financial loss.

A decision on the matter is expected soon.

Lawford said that if all complaints are upheld, it could mean that few flight incidents require compensation.

“It would certainly be a struggle for the average consumer to get their claim approved.”

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