MONTREAL — Air Canada said Friday it made a mistake in rejecting some compensation claims from the thousands of travellers affected by flight delays caused by computer malfunctions in recent weeks.
In messages to some customers, the airline initially said the information technology fumble was out of its hands, relieving it of obligations to pay them compensation.
"In this instance, the compensation you are requesting does not apply because the disruption was caused by an event outside of our control. This flight is delayed due to an unforeseen technology issue, impacting one of our suppliers, which is impacting our operations," the airline said Thursday in an email to passenger Douglas Judson.
Judson said he arrived more than three hours late after his June 1 flight from Winnipeg to Toronto was delayed due to the IT defect.
"I find the dishonesty and disrespect of it the most galling," he said in a phone interview. "Some really interesting logic puzzles at Air Canada as to when something is actually their fault."
While denying his compensation request, Air Canada offered him a 15 per cent fare discount on any upcoming flight as a "goodwill gesture."
When contacted by The Canadian Press on Friday, the Montreal-based airline said the response stemmed from an error.
"Air Canada is offering compensation in line with APPR (Air Passenger Protection Regulations) compensation levels for flights which were affected by the IT outage. Some passengers had received erroneous responses from us, and we are in the process of re-contacting them with the correct responses," spokeswoman Angela Mah wrote.
Judson received an email Friday afternoon offering an apology and $400 in compensation.
The country's largest carrier has struggled with intermittent computer problems over the past few weeks.
On May 25 it delayed more than half its flights due to a "technical issue" with the system that the airline uses to communicate with aircraft and monitor their performance. On June 1 it delayed or cancelled more than 500 flights — over three-quarters of its trips that day, according to tracking service FlightAware — due to "IT issues."
That same day, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra stressed the carrier's compensation responsibilities to its guests.
“Air Canada has obligations to passengers who are impacted because it is caused by things that the airline has control over," he told reporters June 1, hours after the IT issues resurfaced.
Alghabra spokeswoman Nadine Ramadan said in an email Friday the minister's office had been in touch with the company, which assured them it will compensate the affected passengers.
Gabor Lukacs, president of the Air Passenger Rights advocacy group, said the airline's reaction still "rings hollow."
"We are hearing about too many of these 'errors' to believe that it was a genuine error," he said in an email.
Lukacs suggested Air Canada's response — including the discounted fare offer — marked "an attempt to make passengers go away and not pursue their rights."
It was not clear whether the thousands of passengers whose flights were delayed or cancelled the day after the June 1 computer problem — Judson's included — due to what the airline deemed "rollover effects" would receive compensation.
"They said in their official communications to passengers that it was maintenance. I do not believe it was maintenance. I think it was a direct consequence of their IT issues," Judson said, noting that his return flight to Winnipeg on June 2 landed more than three hours behind schedule.
Air Canada's Mah said the airline would "investigate to determine the root cause of the cancellation and handle accordingly."
At least 144 of its flights, or 27 per cent of the airline's scheduled load, had been delayed as of late afternoon on June 2. That's along with 33 cancellations, according FlightAware.
In April, the transport minister laid out measures to toughen penalties and tighten loopholes around traveller compensation as part of a proposed overhaul of Canada's passenger rights charter.
If passed as part of the budget bill — the act made it through third reading in the House of Commons on Thursday and is now before the Senate — the reforms will put the onus on airlines to show a flight disruption is caused by safety concerns or reasons outside their control. Specific examples would be drawn up by the Canadian Transportation Agency as a list of exceptions around compensation.
"It will no longer be the passenger who will have to prove that he or she is entitled to compensation. It will now be the airline that will need to prove that it does not have to pay for it," Alghabra said on April 24.
Currently, a passenger is entitled to between $125 and $1,000 in compensation for a three-hour-plus delay or a cancellation made within 14 days of the scheduled departure — unless the disruption stems from events outside the airline's control, such as weather or a safety issue including mechanical problems. The amount varies depending on the size of the carrier and length of the delay.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.
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Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press