What you can claim during flight delays

January 15, 2014 - News

Special to SAF
Air travelers were stranded during the recent holidays by ice, snow, even floods in island resorts. They can claim compensation for some delays.
Daniel Schwartz and his pregnant wife Jill were returning to Toronto from St Lucia on Christmas Eve. Their WestJet flight couldn’t take off because of a sudden rainstorm on the Caribbean island.
The passengers went back into the airport to spend several nights on benches and floors. The flight did not leave until Dec 27 because of the flooding.
Desperate to find a hotel room since there were none left in the area, Schwartz paid $1,000 to charter a helicopter with a few other couples to go to the north end of the island.
He had hoped for more sympathy from the airline, which says at its website: “Our entire corporate culture has been built about caring for you, our guests, by providing a great guest experience.”
A senior WestJet official greeted passengers at the airport when they arrived home, giving them a letter of apology and a promise of $500 in coupons and a call from someone shortly. Almost two weeks later, he’s still waiting for the call.
The St Lucia flooding — which killed a number of residents, wiped out roads across the island and closed the airport for several days — was devastating.
“For our guests trapped at the airport, it was an extremely uncomfortable and difficult experience and we apologize,” said WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer.
Airline staff worked to care for passengers “under extraordinary conditions, the likes of which we have never seen before in the more than six years since we first launched service to St Lucia”.
Schwartz’s complaint was similar to those of other passengers stuck on the tarmac or in a terminal because of ice storms — lack of communication and contradictory information by the airlines.
Do passengers have a right to information and compensation when their plans are disrupted by a weather crisis?
Gabor Lukacs, an advocate for the flying public, has challenged the Canadian Transportation Agency to make the rules more customer-friendly.
“The man who sends lousy airline policies packing,” said the headline of a Toronto Star article in 2011 about his victories.
I asked him to explain what you’re entitled to claim from an airline when your flight is delayed.
• Delays caused by weather: Airlines are not responsible for delays if weather conditions make it impossible to take off and land, he said. You have to pay for hotels, meals and other expenses on your own.
At the same time, airlines are responsible to communicate to you about delays and keep you informed. This is required by the Flight Rights Canada reforms passed in 2008.
If airlines fail to reasonably inform passengers, they may be liable for expenses caused by inadequate information or for inconvenience caused by lack of communication — such as standing in line for hours.
• Aftermath of a flood or storm: Once the weather event is over, airlines are responsible to transport passengers as soon as practical or face possible liability for expenses. It’s reasonable to expect an airline to clear up a backlog within one or two days.
Those who are not flown home even a week after a storm are entitled to claim out-of-pocket expenses (which may include lost wages), since the airline failed to take “all reasonable steps necessary to prevent the delay”.
• Delayed baggage: You may be separated from your bags in a crisis, even in cases where you never leave the airport. If so, the airline has to pay for “reasonable” expenses incurred while you and your luggage are apart.
This can be much more than toothpaste and underwear, depending on the circumstances and purpose of the trip.
Canada does not have an airline passenger bill of rights. In the United States, airlines have to release you if you’re stranded on a runway within three hours and provide food and water within two hours on domestic flights.
A Canadian bill of rights would be great, Lukacs says, as would a systemic enforcement of existing rights, rules and legislation that helps passengers.
— Torstar News Service