The Canadian Transportation Agency is wrestling with a backlog of nearly 14,000 air passenger complaints accumulated over the past two years, at the same time as thousands of Canadians are demanding the agency help get their money back from flights cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than half of the 26,000 complaints submitted to the CTA from July 2018 to April 2020 are unresolved, according to a response to an order paper question by the NDP tabled in Parliament last week on the number, nature and resolution of passenger complaints.
The bulk of the complaints — which are meant to be addressed within 30 to 120 days — are for disruptions to flights including cancellations, tarmac delays and people being denied boarding.
The backlog doesn’t come as a surprise to Mahesh Krishnamurthy, a Canadian living in the U.S. who flies often and has launched four complaints with the agency over the past 15 years.
“Four complaints, zero resolutions,” Krishnamurthy said. “You know it’s frustrating, but you realize at the end, sometimes that’s what government is.”
Krishnamurthy recently submitted a complaint about an Air Canada flight from New York to Australia, which was meant to depart in April but was cancelled because of travel restrictions. His other complaints have included delays or problems with ticket prices.
Complaints surged after new passenger protections implemented
The CTA told CBC News the vast majority of untouched cases are not tied to the global public health crisis, which largely grounded air travel around the world.
The number of complaints more than doubled after the second wave of air passenger protection regulations came into effect in December 2019, the agency said.
The regulations, first enacted in July 2019, are intended to ensure that both airlines and passengers know what their rights are when it comes to travel setbacks like delays and cancellations. The CTA is an independent, quasi-judicial tribunal and regulator tasked with settling disputes between the customers and airlines.
It simply reflects the challenges of handling a 23-fold leap in demand– Canadian Transportation Agency
“The massive increase in complaint volumes has made it increasingly challenging to meet these standards, despite the mobilization of effort across the organization,” the agency wrote in a statement to CBC News.
“This isn’t for lack of effort or commitment; it simply reflects the challenges of handling a 23-fold leap in demand.”
The agency said it has attempted to tackle the influx of cases by resolving complaints through more informal methods including mediation, launching inquiries to simultaneously clear up common complaints about the same issue and reallocating resources internally.
NDP transport critic Niki Ashton said the backlog shows the agency isn’t doing its job to protect passengers.
“The Canadian government should be stepping up … to make sure that Canadians’ complaints are being heard, are being resolved,” Ashton said.
Thousands of complaints since onset of pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the mounting pile of complaints.
The CTA says it logged about 5,500 complaints from March 11 to May 28, though it did not disclose what they were about.
The number was revealed as Canadians across the country are calling on the federal government to compel airlines to refund costs for flights they were never able to board. Most Canadian airlines have offered passengers travel vouchers redeemable within two years — something the CTA has said could be reasonable during these extraordinary circumstances.
Ashton, however, believes Ottawa should look harder at compensating those who cancelled their trips.
“That’s something that we know is a huge issue right now,” she said.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Friday that forcing airlines to refund passengers would have a “devastating effect” on an already battered industry.
Meanwhile, the CTA says that while none of its services were suspended because of the pandemic, it did suspend its interactions with airlines about outstanding disputes.
That decision was made to allow carriers “to focus on immediate demands, such as repatriating Canadians stranded abroad, and to adjust their operations in light of plummeting passenger and flight volumes,” the agency said.
The CTA added conversations will resume with airlines starting in July.
CAA: ‘The system is simply clogged up’
The Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) — a travel agency and consumer group that originally pushed for the passenger protections and took part in the consultation process — said the CTA can’t support passengers if it doesn’t have the staffing or resources to do so.
“We’ve been saying since the start of this process that no matter how good the rules are, if we don’t have good enforcement, it’s simply not going to work,” said CAA spokesperson Ian Jack.
“The system is simply clogged up and not working. If we don’t have a system that people can trust because it’s going to deal with a complaint in a timely fashion, then the system just falls apart and we’re no better off than we were before we pushed to get this airline passenger bill of rights.”
The CTA received temporary funding from the federal government over the past two fiscal years to address the rise in complaints, but the agency was not able to immediately confirm the amount to CBC News. The agency did say it nearly doubled the number of complaints it processed during that time period.
Jack said the next step is to go beyond opposition parties asking questions in Parliament: he wants to see data about complaints and the CTA’s response times made publicly available so consumers can see for themselves if it’s working.
“If people lose trust in the system, they’re never going to come back to it and we’re not going to have an effective air passenger rights regime in this country,” he said.
“By the third or fourth time, you don’t really have any expectations of them actually resolving the complaint,” he said. “You know you’ve got to do it on your own.”