Reasonable Doubt: Know your rights for your next flight disruption

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      Can I have your attention, please.”

      At Gate 52 of YVR Airport, everyone was in vinyl seats and had been drifting in and out of sleep between announcements of delays. Hour after hour, our flight was pushed back. We were supposed to leave at 1 a.m. It was 4:30 a.m.

      We have now identified the problem with the engine. We have not fixed it yet. We do not know when the engine will get fixed but the flight crew must be given eight hours of relief. That is why your flight will not take off for at least another eight hours. Please line up and we will determine whether we can put you on the next available flight or whether we can arrange a hotel room for you. We apologize for the inconvenience.” 

      It was pandemonium. Children whimpered from being woken up. Their parents demanded to be shuttled to hotels immediately. Business-class passengers shouted their status and insisted to be helped first. People were sleep-deprived, confused, anxious, and angry.

      By the way, this is how my last vacation began. In situations like this, people are desperate to know what their rights are. What is your recourse? Last year, the Air Passenger Protection Regulations came in. They outlined your rights when you fly in, out, and within Canada. It’s a lot to unpack, but let’s hit the main points.

      If your flight has been disrupted, the airline must inform you of the reason for the disruption, your rights, and your recourse. Your rights will depend on the reason for the disruption. That will put you in one of three categories. Those three categories are:

      • disruptions that are out of the airline’s control
      • disruptions that are within the airline’s control but required for safety purposes
      • disruptions that are within the airline’s control but not required for safety purposes

      Let’s start with disruptions out of the airline’s control. We’re talking natural disasters, political instability, and medical emergencies (to name a few). When they cause delays that reach three hours or that cause flight cancellations, the airline must put you on another flight. The airline has to put you on the next available flight with them or with an allied airline. For “large” airlines (those with at least two million passengers in each of the two previous years), the flight must be within 48 hours or else you can be put on a flight with a competing airline.

      The second category is for disruptions within the airline’s control but due to safety purposes. Disruptions for “safety purposes” include those required by law and certain judgment calls by pilots. When they cause delays that reach three hours, flight cancellations, or overbookings, the airline must find alternate travel for you. This alternate travel will be the next available flight. For “large” airlines, this must be with them or an allied airline within nine hours; otherwise, it is with any competing airline within 48 hours. Importantly, you can opt for a refund of an unused leg of the travel itinerary and you can be flown back to the point of origin.

      The third category is for disruptions within the airline’s control but not required for safety purposes. When they cause delays, cancellations, and overbookings, the airline must find alternate travel for you (similar to when the disruptions are required for safety) or offer a refund for the unused portion of an itinerary. But what is different here is that you can claim compensation. As long as your delay or cancellation comes with less than 14 days’ notice, you can claim compensation. Large airlines must compensate at least $400 if your delay reaches three hours, $700 at the six-hour mark, and $1,000 at the nine-hour mark. The compensation levels are less for small airlines. Also, if you choose ticket refunds due to delays or cancellations, you may be entitled to an additional amount for the inconvenience. That is a minimum of $400 for large airlines.

      The new regulations give special mention to overbookings that aren’t due to safety reasons. Airlines are known to sell more tickets than there are seats on a plane. If you get bumped off your flight because the airline overbooked your flight, you may get higher compensation. Airlines are required to give bumped passengers a minimum of $900 for delays of less than six hours. At the six-hour mark, that compensation increases to $1,800 and goes up to $2,400 at the nine-hour mark.

      The regulation is new law that is relatively untested. Time will tell how well we consumers are protected. For example, there may be pushback from airlines. For borderline cases, they may push the envelope on whether a particular disruption was out of their control or was required for safety purposes. This way, they might try to avoid paying the required compensation. 

      Right now, global travel is in chaos from the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re reading this while trying to scramble home, you should know the special exemptions put in place by the Canadian Transportation Agency.

      All of this just goes to show how vulnerable we all are during air travel. You can be left stranded somewhere and feel pretty powerless. It’s important to understand your rights to help you get you to where you need to be.

      A word of caution: you should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer. There are specific deadlines to follow in order to claim compensation under the regulation. For more information, see the law here and read about the Canadian Transportation Agency.

      Kevin Yee is a trial lawyer and acts for people who have been injured or wronged. You’re welcome to reach out to him if you have topics that you’d like Reasonable Doubt to cover or if you have a general question for a lawyer.