Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
The nearly $76 million Ottawa will spend on ensuring the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) has the resources it needs to clear a swelling backlog of some 42,0000 air passenger rights complaints is a “welcome first step,” says the National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC).
But there’s more to the problem than simply clearing the CTA’s cache, the council says.
Responding to Transport Minister Omar Alghabra’s remarks on Tuesday (March 14) announcing a plan to give the CTA $25 million more per year so the quasi-judicial agency can hire roughly 200 more staff to process complaints faster, Jeff Morrison, president and CEO of the NACC, which represents Air Canada, Air Transat, Jazz Aviation LP and WestJet, welcomed the initiative.
“However, the only long-term solution is permanent policy improvements to ensure that the entire air travel ecosystem is properly funded so it works effectively and to hold all participants accountable so Canadian air travelers can have confidence that their journey is predictable and timely,” Morrison stated. “That means having clear service standards across the entire aviation system, rather than airlines being the only stakeholder subject to enforceable standards.”
READ MORE: Ottawa announces $75.9M to tackle air passenger complaints backlog, pledges to close “loophole”
He said the upcoming Federal Budget, which will be tabled on March 28, is the government’s opportunity to demonstrate that it is willing to invest in making things better for travellers.
The NACC has now seen two parliamentary committee reports calling for the government to invest in the human resources, technology, and infrastructure upgrades that are needed, he said.
“The time has come for the government to act,” Morrison stated. “The current environment of high taxes, rent, and user fees imposed on the airline industry have resulted in the aviation ecosystem needing to take on increased debt, particularly during the pandemic. Not only has this increased fare costs for passengers; it has also led to the deferral of critical investments in infrastructure at our airports — the kind of upgrades that can help keep flights running on time during extreme weather events, or high volumes of traffic, to name a few examples.”
Delays are caused by many
Strengthening overall accountability across Canada’s entire aviation system is an argument that’s been made before.
It came up in January when officials from Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing appeared at a House of Commons Transport, Infrastructure and Communities hearing to testify about the disruptions that left Canadian travellers stranded and scrambling over the holidays.
Appearing at the hearing, Andrew Gibbons, WestJet's vice-president of government relations and regulatory affairs, called for reform of Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR), saying that airlines shouldn’t be the only ones held responsible for delays and cancellations.
A delay or cancellation can be “caused by many groups, yet only airlines have regulations governing our activities,” Gibbons said at the time.
He called for equal policies for any entity that provides a service that can result in a delay or cancellation.
“This includes government entities, airport authorities, NAV Canada and others,” Gibbons said. “Strengthening overall accountability across our entire aviation system will improve service for all, bring down complaints and provide the transparency our guests and all travellers deserve.”
“Rebalance” the power
The CTA has been dealing with air passenger complaints ever since the APPR were introduced in 2019.
Minister Alghabra has long vowed to strengthen air passenger rights legislations, a reform he says will be tabled this spring, and it appears the plan is to strengthen rules so complaints against airlines are settled before they reach the CTA.
Yesterday, he cited an “asymmetry of power” that airlines have over passengers and said the government is working to “rebalance” that power.
His words came as Canadians are becoming increasingly frustrated with the time it takes for the CTA to resolve a complaint.
CBC News, through an access to information request, recently obtained four client satisfaction surveys conducted by the CTA and the results show a rising level of dissatisfaction with air passenger compensation rules.
A 2019 survey shows that 25 per cent of passengers were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the time it took for the CTA to process their complaint. That number jumped to 71 per cent in the 2022 survey, CBC reports.
Morrison of the NACC believes Canadians recognize that the drivers of flight disruptions lie outside the control of airlines.
“Extending shared accountability to security lines, customs lines, airports and air navigation will enhance accountability and transparency for travellers when unforeseen circumstances occur,” he said.
The NACC is also recommending that Ottawa adopt quantitative metrics and benchmarks for addressing service delivery issues, “which should be made public.”
“Canada’s airlines will continue to work collaboratively with the Government of Canada towards the goal of positive policy changes that make a real difference for air passengers,” Morrison said.
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