‘A catch-all excuse’: WestJet court compensation case makes travellers uneasy

Air travellers in Canada are paying close attention to a legal battle that some worry could set a precedent on compensation around last-minute flight cancellations and staffing shortages.

Calgary-based WestJet filed a motion earlier this month to the Federal Court of Appeal in Vancouver, arguing it shouldn’t have to compensate a passenger whose flight was cancelled from Regina to Toronto, en route to Ottawa, last July.

Owen Lareau filed a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) after the flight was cancelled less than two hours before take-off due to a lack of staff and last month the agency determined he was entitled to $1,000 under passenger protection rules for flights delayed more than nine hours.

WestJet acknowledges the cancellation was within its control but was required for safety purposes and therefore the airline argues it shouldn’t be responsible for the compensation claim under passenger protection rules.

“It states that the first officer booked off because of illness approximately one hour before the scheduled departure, and that staff from the crew scheduling department attempted to secure an alternate first officer without success,” court documents said.

“WestJet argues that crew resources were limited because Regina is not its crew base, and that it was unable to find an alternate first officer for the safe operation of the flight.”

WestJet did rebook Lareau the next day, provided him with accommodation and meal vouchers but he didn’t arrive to his final destination until 21 hours later.

CTV News did reach out to Lareau who did not want to comment on the case at this time.

The Court of Appeal will now decide whether or not it will hear WestJet’s appeal, something many are keeping a close eye on as airlines come under fire for denying compensation on the basis of safety concerns.

Air Passenger Rights president Dr. Gábor Lukács says the government needs to address these sort of appeals by airlines.

“Morally, it is shameful. Financially and business-wise, it’s understandable. WestJet is trying to push the envelope trying to push their luck,” he told CTV News in an interview on Wednesday.

Lukács wants to see the government amend Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR) to clarify what does and what doesn’t constitute safety standards and concerns.

“The route cause is that the APPR is poorly drafted had it been drafted as we proposed airlines wouldn’t even dare to try these type of games.”

Many travellers in Canada are also concerned with the case and possible implications for future compensation claims.

“It’s going to be a landmark ruling right now because it’s not just one person because it gives airlines excuses to deny everything on the grounds that, ‘hey, there were safety protocol delays but it’s clear they have staffing shortages,’” said, Abehishek Sharma, who was flying out of the Calgary International Airport Wednesday.

“It makes me a little bit nervous because that becomes a catch-all excuse that everything is a safety delay.”

Another traveller in Calgary, Dan Reilly, says he understands airlines are dealing with staffing shortages but says they still have a responsibility to their customers.

“I think a good portion needs to be on the airline since we’re restricted with what we can book on flights and we’re at the mercy of them particularly if they leave you in the middle of a trip somewhere,” he says.

Tannins Thompson, another air traveller in Calgary, is in agreement and says airlines need to make up for delays and cancellations in the form of compensation or credit.

“It’s no different than any other service, if (you) can’t provide the service – you give the money back.”

Advocates say many people don’t have the financial resources to fight airlines in court and worry that will lead many to give up on compensation claims.

WestJet told CTV News they will not comment on the case as it is before the courts.

(With files from the Canadian Press)

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