Air Canada denies passenger compensation claims for understaffing, citing safety

Less than four hours before departure, Ryan Farrell was surprised to learn that his flight from Yellowknife to Calgary had been cancelled.

Air Canada cited “crew constraints” and booked him on a plane departing 48 hours after the June 17 flight’s original takeoff time.

Farrell was even more surprised six weeks later when he learned that his compensation claim had been denied due to staffing shortages.

“As your Air Canada flight was delayed/cancelled due to crew constraints resulting from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our operations, the compensation you seek does not apply as the delay /the cancellation was caused by a security-related issue,” reads the guest relations email dated July 29.

The rejection “feels like a slap in the face,” Farrell said.

“If they don’t have a replacement crew to replace, then the flight (was) canceled because they failed to get a crew together, not because some other factor would have made the flight inherently dangerous,” he said in an email. .

“I think airlines are trying to exploit a general emotional connection that people make between ‘COVID-19’ and ‘safety’, when in reality, if you put their logic to the test, it doesn’t hold up. upright.”

Air Canada’s response to Farrell’s complaint was not aberrant. In a Dec. 29 memo, the company asked employees to classify flight cancellations caused by staffing shortages as a “safety” issue, which would exclude travelers from compensation under federal regulations. This policy remains in place.

Canada’s passenger bill of rights, the Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR), requires airlines to pay up to $1,000 in compensation for cancellations or long delays that arise from reasons beyond their control. of the carrier when the notification arrives 14 days or less before departure. However, airlines do not have to pay if the change was necessary for security reasons.

The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), a quasi-judicial federal agency, says treating staff shortages as a safety issue violates federal rules.

“If a crew shortage is due to the actions or inaction of the carrier, the disruption will be considered to be under the carrier’s control for the purposes of the APPR. Therefore, a disruption caused by a crew shortage does not should not be considered ‘necessary for security purposes’ when it was the carrier that caused the security issue as a result of its own actions,” the agency said in an email.

The stance reinforces a decision taken on July 8 – three weeks before Farrell learned he had been denied compensation – when the CTA used nearly identical language in a dispute over a flight with another airline. The regulatory committee’s decision in the case emphasized airlines’ obligations for advance planning “to ensure that the carrier has sufficient staff available to operate the services it offers for sale. “.

In the December memo, which was released at the height of the Omicron wave of COVID-19, Air Canada said: “Effective immediately, flight cancellations due to crew are considered under the control of the carrier – for safety.”

“Customers affected by these flight cancellations will still be eligible for standard treatments such as hotel accommodations, meals, etc., but will no longer be eligible for APPR claims/monetary compensation.”

The staff directive said the position would be “temporary”. But Air Canada acknowledged in a July 25 email that the policy “remains in place given the continuing exceptional circumstances brought about by the COVID variants.”

Gabor Lukacs, president of the air passenger rights group, said Air Canada is exploiting a loophole in the passenger bill of rights to avoid paying compensation, and called on the transport regulator for tougher enforcement.

“They misclassify things that are clearly not a safety issue,” he said of Canada’s largest airline, calling the policy “serious.”

Consumers can challenge an airline’s denial of a claim through CTA compliance. However, the agency’s backlog exceeded 15,300 air travel complaints in May.

Lukacs also noted that European Union regulations do not exclude security reasons from situations requiring compensation in the event of cancellation or delay. Payouts are only excluded due to “extraordinary circumstances”, such as weather conditions or political instability.

“This document, along with previous statements and behaviors since the start of the pandemic, shows that Air Canada’s priority is clearly to try to contain the costs of flight cancellations instead of providing good service to its customers. “, Sylvie De Bellefeuille, a lawyer for the Quebec group Option consommateurs, said after reviewing a copy of the directive.

She said Air Canada aims to deter passengers from seeking compensation in the first place. “This tactic does not, in our view, demonstrate that the company cares about its customers.”

Air Canada does not agree with this characterization.

“Air Canada had and continues to have more employees in proportion to its flight schedule compared to before the pandemic,” the company said in an emailed statement, saying it had done everything it could. to prepare for operational problems.

“Air Canada is following all public health guidelines as part of its safety culture, and during the Omicron wave last winter which affected the availability of some crew, we revised our policy to better assist customers on their travels. with enhanced levels of customer service for crew-related flight cancellations struggling with COVID.”

John Gradek, director of McGill University’s aviation management programme, said the transport agency is partly to blame for the ‘debacle’ because it set rules that were looser than those in Europe and the states -United.

“Carriers have gone to great lengths to point fingers and claim delays are beyond their control to reduce liability,” he said in an email.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 7, 2022.