The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Angry air travellers call for U.S.-style airline disclosure of complaints

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HALIFAX - Some passengers angered by air travel ordeals say its time airlines in Canada be required to publicly disclose complaints of baggage problems, cancelled flights and tarmac delays, just like their counterparts do south of the border.

Tiffany Flowers said she waited six days in Halifax after a weather delay cancelled her Jan. 3 Porter Airlines flight to Montreal, despite clear days in both cities.

Flowers said her autistic son, 14, missed a medical appointment to adjust his medication as a result.

"You're at the mercy of the airlines," said the 32-year-old student and graphic designer.

Flowers said Ottawa should post airline records for delays, baggage mishandling and cancellations online for travellers.

"People put their lives in the hands of these airline companies, and we have no record," she said.

Brad Cicero, a spokesman for Porter Airlines, said in an email that severe weather and fully booked flights led to a seat shortage. He said the company is reviewing how it operates when there are weather disruptions.

Michael Janigan, a lawyer for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Toronto, said an overhaul of passenger rights laws is needed, beginning with public disclosure of complaints on mishandled baggage, boarding denials due to overbooking, cancellations and delays.

He said the federal government could follow the model of the U.S. Department of Transportation website, which posts such records online.

"What we have here is a complete lack of keeping performance statistics like we have in the United States ... to keep track of barometers of airline success," Janigan said.

A spokeswoman for Transport Canada said in an email there is no law in Canada requiring airlines to publicly disclose consumer complaints. She did not comment on whether Ottawa keeps any records internally.

"The government continues to monitor the situation and will take whatever measures are required to ensure consumers are treated fairly," said Karine Martel.

Marc-Andre O'Rourke, executive director of the National Airlines Council of Canada, said in an email it is difficult to comment on a public disclosure system since no proposal is before the government.

"Each airline has a very different type of operation and network," he added. "This means varying numbers of passengers, baggage, number of connections, etc. As such it makes timely and useful comparisons more difficult."

He said on-time performance statistics are tracked for some flights on FlightStats, a privately run website.

But Brooklyn Elhard, whose Air Canada flight from Orlando, Fla., to Toronto was delayed Jan. 4 for two days due to mechanical problems, said she wants more information about airlines in the future.

"It would change the way people travel if they actually knew what they were signing up for," said the 24-year-old music student.

Elhard's flight took off for Toronto but returned to Orlando after experiencing the mechanical problems.

She said money was provided for meals but that didn't fully cover the cost, a taxi refused to honour an Air Canada voucher, baggage was left unattended on a carousel for more than an hour and a subsequent flight was cancelled when a warning light came on in the cockpit of the same plane.

Isabelle Arthur, an Air Canada spokeswoman, said in an email passengers on the flight were offered discounts for future travel and said the incident occurred as the airline was struggling with extreme weather conditions that reduced the availability of aircraft and crew.

Statistics on the Canadian Transportation Agency's website indicate the number of complaints handled informally by the agency has grown over the past year.

From April 1 to Sept. 1 of last year, the agency was involved with 230 Canadian airline complaints after passengers tried to resolve them matters with their airlines. That compares to 143 complaints for the same time period the year before.

But Janigan said the agency's complaints-based system isn't particularly consumer-friendly, and he sees a need for an airlines complaint advocate and tougher enforcement laws.

The agency said passengers who formally complain to the agency must show that a domestic airline's compensation rules for problems such as damaged baggage, cancelled flights and refused boardings aren't reasonable based on existing law, rules of natural justice and evidence.

Janigan said he prefers the enforcement penalties the U.S. Department of Transportation sometimes imposes if it finds airlines are violating set rules on minimum compensation rates.

In 2013, Delta Airlines was penalized $750,000 for improperly bumping passengers due to overbooking, while United Airlines was fined $1.1 million for stranding passengers aboard airplanes on the tarmac during a weather delay in Chicago in July 2012.

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On the web: www.dot.gov/airconsumer/air-travel-consumer-reports

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