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Airline regulator prods passenger to keep quiet on complaint rulings

A consumer rights organization says the Canadian Transportation Agency is pressuring passengers to stay silent about its rulings on their complaints — a move the country’s airline regulator says falls squarely within its mandate under the law.

The agency has asked at least one complainant who posted a decision on the Air Passenger Rights’ Facebook page to delete their post, said Gabor Lukacs, president of the advocacy group.

“The decision was posted in the group by one of the passengers involved in the decision, who has since removed the post at our request,” reads an email to Lukacs from an agency director and posted online.

The message asks Lukacs for his group’s “collaboration in preventing future public sharing of confidential information.”

Lukacs called the move “unconstitutional,” saying it limits free expression.

“You cannot imagine a small claims court making a decision confidential,” he said. “You go and read whatever you want.”

Passengers should be allowed to share the outcome of cases brought before complaint resolution officers at the regulator, Lukacs argued. The rulings could inform other travellers seeking to file for compensation or refunds from an airline — including customers who were on the same flight — among other complaints.

Otherwise, the adjudication process “becomes a kind of black hole” that insulates decision-makers from scrutiny and accountability, he said.

“Once mediation turns into binding decision-making, that cannot be kept confidential unless there are some very, very important issues like protecting victims in sexual assault cases.”

However, federal legislation says otherwise. Recent amendments to the Canada Transportation Act state that the regulator can “decide to keep confidential any part of an order” — except for several key parts of the ruling, such as the flight number, date and whether a delay was within the carrier’s control — at the request of the complainant or the airline.

In an email, transportation agency spokesman Jadrino Huot pointed to the legislation and emphasized that rulings by complaint resolution officers “must not be published” unless all parties agree to it.

The issue hinges largely on the constitutionality of the amendments themselves. Paul Daly, chair in administrative law and governance at the University of Ottawa, argued that routine non-publication of decisions by quasi-judicial bodies breaches principles of open justice enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“These provisions would create mechanisms for binding mediation and adjudication that would operate largely in secret,” he said in a blog post in May 2023, shortly before the amendments took effect.

“Decision-making would be done in the shadows, on the basis of past decisions and guidelines that have only seen the light of day to the extent the agency chooses. Open justice should be the default principle but it does not have much purchase in (this bill).”

Lukacs also claims that the transportation agency’s mandate does not extend to enforcement of the legislation against individuals, as opposed to airlines.

The regulator’s actions come as its complaint backlog sits at record highs topping 72,000. It is likely to grow in the short term after more than 100,000 WestJet customers saw their flights cancelled due to a mechanics strike over the Canada Day long weekend.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2024.

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