Suspiciously Few Complaints

Air passenger complaints to the Canadian Transportation Agency account for a small fraction, less than a hundredth of one percent, of the number of actual passengers, according to new data. The Agency said it received 396 complaints against Air Canada and WestJet last year; the two airlines carry some 40 million passengers a year, by official estimate.

“The system is broken,” said Dr. Gábor Lukács, a Halifax-based passenger rights advocate; “These complaints are minuscule. I think the main problem is the government has stalled any efforts to see an actual passengers’ rights bill in Canada.”

The Agency in its 2015 Annual Report to cabinet said it received only handfuls of complaints against other Canadian carriers including 19 at Porter Airlines; 29 at Sunwing; and 66 against Air Canada’s Jazz subsidiary. More than 122 million passengers get on and off aircraft each year in Canada, according to a 2013 StatsCan report Air Carrier Traffic At Canadian Airports.

“Contrary to what the Agency says, complaints procedures at the Agency are very complicated,” Lukács said. “Self-represented passengers are at a clear disadvantage, and retaining a lawyer is difficult since the Agency does not provide for costs.”

“The Agency is not doing its job,” Lukács said. “It is complacent though it has all the tools. It should be investigating compliance issues on its own initiative.”

Lukács attributed the low rate of complaints in part to collegiality between regulator and industry. Simona Sasova, Agency management of enforcement, in 2014 cross-examination in a federal lawsuit initiated by Lukács described cordial relationships with airline executives: “Is it your practice to be on a first-name basis with executives of corporations against whom you take enforcement actions?” Sasova was asked. “Yes,” she replied; “It is a common practice.”

Typical air passenger complaints to the regulator include lost or damaged baggage and flight disruptions. In its Annual Report the Agency noted the number of complaints it received last year against Canadian carriers actually rose from the year before, and numbered only 301 in 2013: “The increase in the number of complaints submitted about Canadian air carriers could be due, in part, to the public’s awareness of the Agency’s dispute resolution services stemming from media coverage and Agency outreach efforts around significant Agency decisions.”

More Like 50,000 Complaints 

However internal documents earlier obtained under Access To Information confirm the Agency is aware it hears of only a tiny fraction of valid service issues, and does not even have statistical data to monitor airlines performance.  Staff in a confidential Assessment Of Air Passenger Level Of Service Indicators In Canada complained they have no “official data” on flight delays, misplaced baggage or overbookings since airlines are not required to publish performance records. “Very few publicly-available level of service indicators – government or private sector – are available in Canada,” Assessment noted.

Complaints to the Agency are likely only “two-thousands of one percent” of actual service issues, Assessment noted: “Agency staff report that an Air Canada representative suggested the carrier received around 20,000 complaints annually but this anecdotal report is now dated and was for a single air carrier only. Lacking firm data, a range of between 20,000 and 50,000 annual air passenger complaints to Canadian airlines is not an unreasonable estimate.”

“Although air carriers do not publish data on the number of complaints they receive, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that for every complaint they receive, the air carriers receive around 50,” Assessment continued. “Although there are significant differences between the two jurisdictions, applying the same ratio to Canada results in an estimate of approximately 40,000 complaints in 2010-11.”

Parliament in 2013 defeated private New Democrat Bill C-459 An Act Respecting The Rights Of Air Passengers that would have mandated compensation of up to $1,000 for travelers affected by flight cancellations or delays. The Agency’s Assessment memo acknowledged Canada is one of the few countries without legislation on passenger rights and minimum statutory compensation for delays, flight cancellations and denial of boarding.

By Tom Korski

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