Air Transat has been forced by Canada's transportation regulator to compensate passengers affected by flight advancements after upholding a complaint by Gábor Lukács.
After the complaint in April by Lukács, a former University of Manitoba math professor now living in Halifax, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) ruled Air Transat must offer refunds or alternative flights to airline passengers if they can't accommodate flight departures that are advanced by more than 45 minutes.
"Advancements may impact as negatively on those passengers as is the case with passengers whose flight is delayed," the Canadian Transportation Agency said in a decision released Thursday.
The agency ruled in favour of Lukács, a passenger-rights advocate who has previously challenged the practices of several airlines. It determined Air Transat's existing rules were not "reasonable or balanced."
Lukács said he believes the changes will assist and protect passengers, noting many people can't change their work or personal commitments to catch earlier flights.
"Airlines cannot walk away from liability if they caused delays or if they substantially altered the service they've promised to provide when you buy the ticket," he said in an interview from Halifax. "There were two issues that came up in this complaint, (the first is) people who simply miss a connection as a result of a delay. They (the airline) sugar-coat it by saying 'we had a schedule change.' "
Lukács said flight advancement is the other issue.
"To put it into context, the problem is that if they advance the flight by two or three hours; if you were planning to leave in the evening after you complete your work, if the flight is a 4 o'clock departure instead of an 8 o'clock departure, you can't do it unless you take part of the day off," he said.
"I've spoken to some people that didn't even know that their flight was advanced until they got to the airport. Sometimes those changes happen within the last 24 hours."
Lukács has successfully had other policies regarding passenger rights changed in his favour through CTA rulings involving Air Canada, WestJet, Porter, United, and Sunwing.
"The idea is not to give people free money; the idea is simply to ensure that passengers who are adversely affected by it can tell the airline this is your problem, not mine," he said.
Air Transat, a division of tour company Transat A.T. based in Montreal, must make the changes by the Sept. 23 deadline.
Spokeswoman Debbie Cabana said most customers adjust their schedules after being notified of an earlier departure time.
"But certainly, if people can't and complain, we will give a refund and conform with the decision," she said in an interview.
Cabana said the airline didn't contest the principle of compensation, but thought a 2004 ruling by the agency supported providing remedies only when flights are advanced by more than six hours or when passengers are not notified at least 48 hours in advance.
"All I am doing is pointing out some very obvious problems," Lukács said. "It's basically, this is the law and this is what you have to do. The big thing is that I am actually willing to take airlines to task time after time to enforce the law."
-- The Canadian Press, with files from Ashley Prest