Surge in airline complaints to national regulator creates delays, backlog

The Canadian Transportation Agency says it has received more than 8,000 complaints about airlines since mid-March, an unprecedented figure for the five-and-a-half-month period that has created a massive backlog, delaying the watchdog's response time.

The number exceeds the total complaints from the entire 2018-19 fiscal year and comes amid a prolonged customer backlash over a move by airlines to offer flight credit or vouchers rather than refunds for most trips cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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"Given that we are in the process of reviewing those complaints, it is not possible to identify specific issues raised in these complaints or to provide any kind of breakdown at this time. However, we expect a portion of these will relate to vouchers and refunds," the agency said in an email providing the figures to The Canadian Press.

The surge in complaints lines up directly with a more than 90 per cent plunge in passenger volume at Canadian carriers, suggesting reimbursements or flight cancellations rather than in-flight experiences play a prominent role.

Since March, Canadian airlines have typically offered flight credit valid for two years after they cancel a trip, leaving many customers concerned they will not feel comfortable flying for health or financial reasons within that time.

Passengers have filed a handful of proposed class-action lawsuits and three petitions garnering more than 109,000 signatures that call for customer reimbursement.

The deluge of complaints to the Canadian Transportation Agency has led to delays in handling them, the agency said Tuesday in a statement.

It is working as efficiently as possible, the agency said, but the backlog is such that cases received prior to the pandemic's start on March 11 are still being processed.

In contrast to Canadian authorities, the European Commission and the U.S. Department of Transportation have required airlines to refund passengers for cancelled flights. The U.S. and European countries including France and Germany have also offered billions in financial relief to struggling carriers. Ottawa has provided no industry-specific bailout to airlines.

The pandemic has devastated the airline industry, with billions of dollars in losses for Canadian carriers amid grounded flights and tight international borders.

Canadian airline revenues in 2020 will fall by $14.6 billion or 43 per cent from last year, according to estimates in May from the International Air Transport Association.

The complaints span mid-March — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a travel advisory on March 13 warning Canadians against trips abroad — to Aug. 26.

The agency did not specify an exact number of complaints.

CTA chairman Scott Streiner said in a June the agency was set to receive additional funding and would hire 34 new staff to its current team of 50 dealing with air travel complaints.

It had also streamlined its complaints process earlier in the year, introducing a more user-friendly complaint form online along with increased automation.

The agency initially suspended adjudications on air travel complaints to allow airlines to concentrate their resources on a pandemic response, but hearings resumed in early July.

Streiner said in June that customers are entitled to refunds where stipulated in the contract of carriage or "tariff" but identified "ambiguity" in the contracts as an issue.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 1, 2020.

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