Air Canada denies certain compensation claims, calls staffing shortage a ‘safety-related issue’ | CBC News

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

Air Canada cited “crew restrictions” and booked him on a plane that would depart 48 hours after the flight’s original takeoff time of June 17.

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

“Since your Air Canada flight was delayed/cancelled due to crew limitations as a result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our operations, the compensation you are requesting does not apply because the delay/cancellation was due to an issue security-related.” reads the customer relations email dated July 29.

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

“If they don’t have replacement crew to fill in, then the flight [was] canceled because they couldn’t get a crew together, not because any other factor would have made the flight inherently unsafe,” he said in an email.

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

CLOCK | Airlines that avoid compensating passengers:

Frustration that airlines deny compensation for trip interruptions

Passengers are frustrated that airlines blame travel disruptions on factors beyond their control and deny compensation in the process.

It is not a unique problem

Air Canada’s response to Farrell’s complaint was not atypical. In a Dec. 29 memo, the company instructed employees to classify flight cancellations caused by staffing shortages as a “safety” issue, which would exclude travelers from compensation under federal regulations. That policy is still in effect.

Canada’s passenger bill of rights, Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR), requires airlines to pay up to $1,000 in compensation for cancellations or significant delays that result from reasons within the carrier’s control when notice reaches 14 days or less before departure. However, airlines do not have to pay if the change was required for security reasons.

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

“If the crew shortage is due to the actions or inactions of the carrier, the outage will be considered to be under the control of the carrier for APPR purposes. Therefore, an outage caused by crew shortage should not be considered ‘necessary for the purposes of security”. ‘when it is the carrier who caused the safety issue as a result of their own actions,’ the agency said in an email.

That stance reinforces a decision made on July 8, three weeks before Farrell knew he had been denied compensation, when the CTA used nearly identical language in a dispute over a flight on a different airline. The regulatory panel’s ruling in that case emphasized airlines’ obligations around planning ahead “to ensure the airline has sufficient staff available to operate the services it offers for sale.”

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Air Canada exploitation policy, says advocate

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

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

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

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

“They’re misclassifying things that are clearly not a security issue,” he said of Canada’s largest airline, calling the policy “appalling.”

Consumers can dispute an airline’s claim denial by filing a complaint with the CTA. However, the agency’s backlog exceeded 15,300 air travel complaints through May.

Air Canada tries to deter compensation claims: lawyer

Lukacs also pointed out that European Union regulations do not exclude security reasons from situations that require compensation in the event of cancellations or delays. Payments are excluded only as a result of “extraordinary circumstances” such as weather or political instability.

“This document, coupled with previous statements and behavior since the start of the pandemic, shows that Air Canada’s priority is clearly trying to limit the costs of flight cancellations rather than providing good service to its customers,” Sylvie De Bellefeuille, a lawyer with the Quebec-based advocacy group Option consommateurs, said after reviewing a copy of the directive.

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

Air Canada disagrees with that 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, indicating it had done everything it could to prepare for operational setbacks.

“Air Canada follows all public health directives as part of its safety culture, and during the wave of Omicron last winter that affected the availability of some crews, we revised our policy to better support customers in their travels with better levels customer service for flight cancellations related to crew dealing with COVID”.

John Gradek, head of the aviation management program at McGill University, said the transportation agency is partly responsible for the “debacle” because it has made rules more flexible than those in Europe and the United States.

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

LISTEN | No relief for frustrated travelers:

The current28:53Travelers continue to battle wait times and cancellations at airports, but experts say there will be no relief any time soon.

Travelers continue to battle long wait times, flight delays and cancellations when trying to travel by plane this summer. Those challenges led Air Canada to cancel flights throughout the summer. For Jenn MacDougall, that meant she had to sleep on the airport floor. She now tells guest host Rosemary Barton that she is calling for action; travel expert Scott Keyes discusses how people can be better prepared; and Monette Pasher, president of the Canadian Airports Council, says global travel is not likely to improve any time soon.

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