Air passenger complaint backlog hits new high, but agency says it's processing complaints faster

The Canadian Transportation Agency says it has been able to process more than 11,000 complaints since September — roughly the same amount processed in the entire previous year. (Daniel Thomas/CBC - image credit)
The Canadian Transportation Agency says it has been able to process more than 11,000 complaints since September — roughly the same amount processed in the entire previous year. (Daniel Thomas/CBC - image credit)

Canada's transportation regulator says it has made progress on addressing compensation claims against airlines since a new complaint resolution process was introduced last fall — but incoming complaints have pushed the backlog to a new high.

The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) — a quasi-judicial tribunal and regulator tasked with settling disputes between airlines and customers — has been dealing with a backlog of air passenger complaints since new regulations were introduced in 2019.

Those regulations require an airline to compensate passengers when a flight is delayed or cancelled for a reason that is within the airline's control. Passengers who feel they've been unfairly denied compensation by an airline can bring their cases to the CTA.

New measures to make the complaint process more efficient took effect in late September. The CTA says that in the months since then, it has been able to process more than 11,000 complaints — about the same number processed in the previous fiscal year.

"We're still maturing the process. We're still improving its efficiency, but as we've said we're already seeing improvements in productivity," said Tom Oommen, the agency's director general of analysis and outreach.

Backlog of complaints hits 71,000

But despite the new process, the backlog now stands at a new high of more than 71,000 unaddressed complaints.

Rita McPherson of Oakville, Ont. is one of the thousands of Canadians still waiting to have their complaints heard.

McPherson filed her grievance with the CTA in November of 2022 after an airline refused to compensate her for a flight that was cancelled and rebooked for the next day.

"If they can't get you home on the day that they're supposed to, there should be some compensation," she told CBC News.

Despite waiting well over a year to have her complaint processed by the CTA, she still has over 7,500 people in the queue ahead of her.

Submitted by Rita McPherson
Submitted by Rita McPherson

"I can't really take that seriously," McPherson said. "It just seems to take way too long. It shouldn't take that long."

Oommen said Canadians should feel assured that their complaints will be addressed.

"Those complaints are going to be dealt with and they're going to be dealt with faster than originally anticipated," he said.

"We've just implemented this new process on September 30. Thousands of complaints have been closed and more will be closed in the near future."

Record number of incoming complaints

Oommen said the main reason the backlog has remained high is the number of complaints still coming in.

Data provided to CBC News by the CTA shows that for the 2023-24 fiscal year, the agency received more than 43,000 complaints — the highest number in a given year since the current air passenger protection regime came into force in 2019.

Oommen said new regulations currently being hashed out should address the high number of incoming complaints.

A draft of the proposed changes released by the CTA last summer would put more of a burden on airlines to prove that "exceptional circumstances" caused a flight delay or cancellation. The new rules, expected to be finalized this year, also would allow the CTA to recover some or all of the costs of processing complaints from airlines.

"Those processes and changes together are what are going to give us the big dent and the eventual elimination of the backlog," Oommen said.

Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez's office said the government has made investments — including $75.9 million last year — to ensure the backlog is cleared.

"Canadians work hard and save up to travel. They expect to leave on time, and they expect good service standards from airlines," a statement from Rodriguez's office said.

"When that doesn't happen, Air Passenger Protection Regulations are there to protect Canadians. The CTA has an important role to play in enforcing these regulations."

Oommen said that he expects the agency will be able to process complaints at an even faster pace as complaint resolution officers gain more experience with the new system.

"We're going to keep improving the productivity of the complaint resolution office as the officers gain experience, as they have new tools, new adapted processes," he said.