A slap on the wing

Canada’s air travel regulator has been handing out fines left and right, at 10,000 feet and on the ground, amid a surge in customer complaints. 

Driving the news: The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) has issued 30 penalties to airlines for the current travel season, up from a pandemic low of 6 from 2020-2021. It’s part of an effort to enforce Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR) implemented in 2019.

  • Sunwing took home the CTA’s biggest fine award—clocking in at $126,000—for 36 APPR violations related to flight delays over the holiday travel season. The worst offenders in terms of the number of violations have been WestJet and Flair Airlines.

Why it matters: Critics say these fines are peanuts. Penalties against WestJet and Flair over failures to compensate customers for flight disruptions amounted to about $200 per infraction—and yet the CTA has the authority to issue fines up to $25,000.

  • A Sunwing traveller who faced a “nightmare” six-day delay on his return flight from Mexico called its $126,000 fine “kind of a joke.” The penalties also don’t seem to amount to any turbulence in WestJet’s plan to buy Sunwing.

Yes, but: The CTA says its fines are signalling a warning to the industry, and anyway, its main avenue for resolving passengers’ complaints is getting them direct compensation from the airlines. Unfortunately, it’s currently working through a backlog of 42,000 formal claims.

  • … but a newly announced three-year, $75.9 million funding package could help speed up the CTA’s complaints processing, with plans to bring in 200 new staffers.

Bottom line: The return of travel after the pandemic’s lockdowns and restrictions has been chaotic, but air travel operators are now legally bound to deliver a basic level of service, or pay a price. So far, that price has been pretty low, but the CTA’s work is on the ascent.—AP