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Air traveller complaints to Canadian Transportation Agency hit new high

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If you're seeking compensation or a refund after a negative flying experience, be prepared to wait.

The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) has hit a record high of more than 71,000 complaints in a backlog. The quasi-judicial regulator and tribunal tasked with settling disputes between customers and the airlines says the backlog is growing because the number of incoming complaints keeps increasing.

Last fiscal year, 43,549 passenger complaints were filed with the CTA, and between April 1st and April 25th 2024, the agency says it has received 3,291 complaints.

"The size of the backlog depends not only on the number of cases we close, but the number of complaints submitted, and that is very high," said Tom Oommen, Director General of the Analysis and Outreach Branch at the Canadian Transportation Agency,

In 2023, the Federal Government gave the CTA $76 million dollars over three years to help it clear the backlog of air traveller complaints. Parliament also introduced new regulations as of September 30th that were supposed to streamline the complaint process under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations.

Oomen says a change allowing a single complaint resolution officer to follow a complaint from start to finish is speeding up the process. In addition, Oomen says the agency's complaint resolution officers are now obligated to close a case within 90 days of issuing a start notice.

"We have this much better, more efficient system in place," Oomen said. "It's operating as expecting and will become more efficient. It's only been in there since September 30th."

Despite the regulation changes, Oomen says he cannot estimate how long it will take for new complaints to be resolved or estimate when the backlog will be eliminated.

Marco Katz Montiel filed a complaint with the CTA in December 2022 after being stranded overnight at Toronto's Pearson International Airport on a trip from New York to Edmonton. He still hasn't heard back and doesn't know where his claim is in the queue.

"Our flight got in late, there was no weather involved and they didn't even claim there was weather involved," he said. "I asked about compensation, meal vouchers, I asked about a hotel and they said no there was none of that."

Katz Montiel says WestJet refused to offer compensation, so he brought the complaint to the CTA. He said he was informed by the CTA that complaints are running 18 months late, but says his is "far past that, of course."

"I am frustrated but I am really sad," he said, adding that this trip was the last time he visited his mother in the United States before she died.

Katz Montiel says he will never file another complaint with the CTA and is actively choosing to fly on international airlines when he travels outside the country.

"Other countries enforce regulations ... I know that if there is a problem, the Canadian government will do nothing for me and if I have a problem with KLM, I can go to the European Union and they enforce regulations."

Passenger rights advocates say the European Union has a much simpler process that puts the onus on the airlines to pay up when air travellers face delays, cancellations or lost baggage. While the federal government's recent changes are a step in the right director, Air Passenger Rights founder Gabor Lukacs says the EU's approach should be viewed as "the Gold Standard."

"The strength is in its simplicity," he says. "You need only to know when the flight was supposed to arrive and whether there was something genuinely extraordinary that you can determine from public sources that may have caused a slight disruption."

Lukacs says he encourages passengers to avoid the CTA due to the long wait times and complicated process and go straight to small claims court instead.

"You may or may not succeed but at least you will get an impartial, independent adjudicator who will listen to your situation and your arguments with an open mind," he said.

And that's exactly what Natalie Kratchanov did in 2023 after a bad experience with Air Canada; she won.

"It's a much better deal," she said. "It's a totally different process and the waiting time is much shorter."

Kratchanov says she was allowed to attend the hearing virtually, make her case, and hear what the airline was saying in response.

"It's a negotiation process," she said. "At least you hear the conversation of the defendent and then you present your case and defend it."

Kratchanov opted to avoid the CTA after waiting eight months in 2019 for a different complaint to be resolved. In that case, she says the CTA told her the airline felt her daughter, who was stranded in Chicago, was compensated enough and the case was "out of their control." 

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