Airline passengers walk by a check-in desk at Trudeau International Airport in Montreal, Friday, March 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Government docs suggest months of inaction on ‘gap’ in passenger refund rules

Government docs suggest months of inaction on ‘gap’ in passenger refund rules

OTTAWA — Internal documents suggest it took about half a year for the federal government to take action on air-passenger refunds after it first identified “gaps” in the rules.

Emails between Transport Canada and the Canadian Transportation Agency, the federal airline watchdog, reveal that back in May 2020, officials highlighted regulatory blind spots around reimbursing passengers whose flights were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One discussion document, recently released to the House of Commons transport committee, says the pandemic exposed holes in the regulatory framework.

“There are no clear and consistent ground rules for how passengers should be treated in circumstances when it is impossible for the airlines to complete passengers’ itineraries,” the document says.

But the correspondencesuggests the issue barelyresurfaced internally until shortly before then-transport minister Marc Garneau directed the agency on Dec. 21 to strengthen the refund rules, which have not yet been put into place.

Bloc Québécois transport critic Xavier Barsalou-Duval says the government showed no willingness to tackle the issue through most of 2020.

NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach says Canadians deserve an explanation as to “why it took so long” to act.

“If you just look through the documents, it looks like they took the summer off, almost. It’s troubling because the amount of money that Canadians are owed — most of them are still owed that money — is a huge amount,” Bachrach said.

Earlier this month, Ottawa announced an aid package for Air Canada in exchange for a pledge to refund passengers, among other conditions, but several other airlines are still refusing reimbursement.

The emails also underscore Canada’s weak passenger protection laws compared to some countries, despite a new passenger rights charter that came fully into effect in December 2019.

Details included in the correspondence note that the United States and European Union require airlines to fully refund passengers “if the airline cancelled a flight, regardless of the reason.” In Canada, however, reimbursement hinges on the tariff — the contract between passenger and carrier — as “no refund obligation” exists.

“Repeatedly the minister already said that he had no ability to mandate the refunds, that the (transportation agency) was an arm’s-length body, that we should look at the waivers that come with the airline tickets,” Bachrach said.

“And yet we see in December that indeed the minister was able to do something. But at that point airlines had been sitting on billions of dollars of Canadians’ hard-earned money in the midst of a pandemic, when a lot of families had been financially devastated.”

The Transport Department and transportation agency did not respond immediately to requests for comment Wednesday.

In December, Garneau instructed the agency to craft a new regulation that is “fair and reasonable” to passengers whose flights are cancelled for reasons beyond the carrier’s control, “such as a pandemic.”

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a gap in the air passenger protection framework, which did not foresee the potential for large-scale and lengthy flight cancellations and groundings of air carrier fleets not only in Canada but globally,” he said, using language mirroring what was written in the documents more than seven months earlier.

Scott Streiner, chair and chief executive of the quasi-judicial agency, has said it aims to have the new regulations in place by the summer.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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