When Gord Gyles filed with WestJet for compensation following a flight delay, he didn’t realize that he had set on a process that would take at least 18 months for him to receive a decision.
On Jan. 2, Gyles, who lives in Campbell River but travels for his job as a pipe fitter, was set to travel from Comox Airport to Vancouver to Fort St. John for work. However, his flight leaving Comox was delayed long enough he would not make his connection in Vancouver so he had to be delayed to the next day.
He says a flight that was departing earlier than his had mechanical issues and made an emergency landing then was stuck on the tarmac, meaning his flight could not take off.
Airlines are required to provide up to $1,000 in compensation for passengers if a flight is delayed for mechanical reasons, and Gyles says his situation should fall under that since a mechanical issue resulted in his flight not being able to take off.
When he filed with WestJet for compensation, his claim was denied.
“Upon review of your reservation, we are unable to approve your claim for compensation as the most significant reason for your flight interruption was due to a guest-related issue and outside of WestJet’s control,” WestJet said in an email to Gyles on Feb. 3.
“Situations surrounding flight disruptions can be complex and have multiple causes. This reason may change as the situation evolves, new issues arise, or new information is received.”
When CHEK News reached out to WestJet on Feb. 3, a spokesperson for the company said the flight was delayed due to “restrictions at the airport.”
“The departure of flight 3050 from Comox to Vancouver was the result of another aircraft being disabled on the runway which delayed the ability to depart,” WestJet said in an email statement.
“This type of situation is outside of carrier control, which is not compensable under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations.”
After WestJet denied his claim, Gyles chose to file a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), which is an independent body that overhears complaints between air, rail, and marine passengers and transportation providers.
When he filed a complaint, he learned the agency has a backlog of complaints and the wait time for him to be heard is 18 months.
“I was quite shocked by that 18 months…I find it appalling.” Gyles said.
“I find that as a consumer WestJet just seems to now do a blanket policy of denying everything, give me zero compensation, and then having people wait 18 months. I expect that a lot of people will just get fed up and won’t do it and that’s unjust. That’s not the way our society should be, it’s not the way that the government should be governing the airlines in my mind.”
Tom Oommen, director general of analysis and outreach branch for the CTA, tells CHEK News it is true there is a backlog of complaints where people will wait 18 months to be heard. With the CTA, a complaint first is heard by a facilitator to try and informally resolve the dispute and will only be forwarded on to an adjudicator if that doesn’t work.
“About three per cent of complaints are not resolved in facilitation, they proceed to a formal adjudication phase, in which the agency acting as a tribunal weighs the evidence presented by both sides and issues a legally binding decision,” Oommen said. “We do currently have a backlog of about 37,000 complaints.”
Once a facilitator is assigned, Oommen says it takes about 20 business days for the facilitation process.
To provide more clarity for those waiting for their complaint to be heard, Oommen says the CTA has launched a dashboard where people can check the status of their complaint to get a real-time update on how long it will be before their complaint is heard, and about where it is in the process.
Gábor Lukács, president of Air Passenger Rights, a nonprofit organization advocating for the rights of air passengers in Canada, says the CTA overwhelmingly rules in favour of airlines and would like to see more enforcement of the rules to penalize airlines for infractions.
“The Canadian Transportation Agency has the power and the tools, in theory, necessary for enforcing passengers’ rights, but they’re not doing their job. They have a huge backlog on top of that and they’re not fining airlines either,” Lukács said. “It’s very important to issue those fines and would be very important to ensure that there is real compliance with the law and airlines don’t treat the law as a mere recommendation that depends on their mood whether they want to comply.”
Oommen disagrees that the CTA is not enforcing the rules, and notes most decisions are not posted publicly since they are resolved by a facilitator and only the decisions that go to adjudication are posted for the public to see.
Of the complaints that have gone to adjudication, Lukács says he has only seen one that has resulted in a notice of violation for the airline to pay.
“For passengers in British Columbia, we recommend going to the civil resolution tribunal,” he said. “They are developing now an expertise in passengers’ rights, they have been applying the [Air Passenger Protection Regulations] in a number of cases. And there the passenger is going to get a timely and fair hearing.”
For Gyles, he says he is frustrated to learn about what passengers have to go through in order to receive compensation for a delayed or cancelled flight in Canada.
“I just find the whole system appalling. I have to say, as consumers, we shouldn’t have to do that. Airlines should not be able to treat people in such a manner,” Gyles said. “Putting all this on passengers, to actually wait 18 months to get a resolution on something I find absolutely appalling and we have to have stronger laws in this country.”