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Passenger refund issues flagged to federal government a year before pandemic

Last Updated May 4, 2021 at 12:00 pm MDT

Airline ground crew walks past grounded Air Canada planes as they sit on the tarmac at Pearson International Airport during the during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

OTTAWA — An air passenger rights advocate says he flagged problems with refund rules to Ottawa more than a year before authorities said the pandemic brought the issues to light.

Gabor Lukacs, president of Air Passenger Rights, says he spoke with policy experts at the Transport Department and the Canadian Transportation Agency in January 2019 about ambiguities in the new passenger bill of rights.

He says he warned them this could leave airlines with the false impression they can deny customers reimbursement for all cancelled flights.

Internal documents from the Transport Department and the transportation agency suggest it took more than seven months for the government to take action on refunds after it first identified “gaps” in the rules.

The correspondence recently released to a parliamentary committee reveal that in May 2020 officials highlighted regulatory blind spots around reimbursing customers whose flights were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but failed to announce corrective measures until December.

Lukacs says the government had plenty of opportunity to prevent the resulting crisis, which saw thousands of customers out of pocket after carriers scrubbed the bulk of their flight schedules over the past 14 months.

Airlines have repeatedly cited statements from the transportation agency to justify withholding reimbursement.

But British Columbia’s consumer protection regulator says passengers “should be provided with a full refund in the same way they paid, as outlined in the law.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2021.

The Canadian Press