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Rude and unhelpful staff and poor communication among traveller complaints

TORONTO - A passenger alleges that Air Canada agents laughed at him and refused to help after a delay caused him to miss a connecting flight.

Another customer claims he was notified via email that his flight with Spanish airline Iberia had been cancelled — four days after the scheduled trip.

And thirteen people say they missed their flights after Air Canada changed its check-in time for domestic travel from 30 to 45 minutes.

These are some of the allegations contained within nearly 400 air travel complaints obtained by The Canadian Press through an Access to Information request.

The quality of service complaints — which detail allegations against both domestic and foreign carriers — were filed with the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) between January and August 2013.

In its annual report, the federal agency notes that the total number of complaints it received against both domestic and foreign carriers has increased in the past year.

It received 301 complaints against eight Canadian carriers in 2012-2013, up from 215 complaints in 2011-2012.

Complaints against foreign carriers rose to 218 in 2012-2013, compared to 145 the previous year.

Quality of service was the most commonly cited issue for the seventh year in a row, although the agency notes that those types of complaints are outside its mandate.

Some consumer rights advocates say that an increase in complaints speaks to the need for an airline passenger bill of rights.

Industry Minister James Moore had previously suggested Ottawa would consider such an initiative, but the measure was absent from the throne speech last fall.

Allegations about rude, unhelpful staff and poor communication are among some of the complaints to the CTA.

A handful of complaints allege that passengers were put up in "dingy" hotels, where there were cockroaches and escorts, after they had been bumped from their flights or while facing delays. Thirty-nine cite problems with getting in touch with a carrier's customer service department citing "impassable phone menus."

"I tried to contact Air Canada, however they do not have a claims department, no phone number to call or a live person to explain the situation to. Only an email address that no one answers," says one complainant.

"Correspondence with airline has run me around in circles," writes another complainant of his experience with Sunwing Airlines Inc. "Representative does not respond to phone calls, and emails are weeks apart."

Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) received the lion's share of service complaints during the period with 150, while Sunwing had 24 complaints. WestJet (TSX:WJA), KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and United Airlines were mentioned about a dozen times each.

Air Canada, the country's largest airline, notes that it carries an average of 115,000 customers a day and more than 35 million people a year.

"While we strive for zero complaints, in this context, 150 complaints is a minute fraction relative to the number of interactions we have with all our customers," spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said in an email.

Although quality of service issues are outside of the agency's mandate, many complaints about quality of service also cite other issues — such as lost baggage, flight disruptions or incidents where passengers are bumped from overbooked flights.

The aim of the agency's informal complaint process is to ensure that airlines are operating in line with the rules set out in their tariffs, the written guidelines that outline how passengers should be treated.

But the agency doesn't award damages to passengers — something that passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs says would help deter airlines from breaking the conditions of their contracts.

"Right now the worst case scenario is that CTA will order them to pay the passenger," says the Halifax-based mathematician. "Given that the agency refuses to award costs, there's no risk for the airline."

Lukacs has had his share of run-ins with carriers and has filed dozens of complaints with the agency. Some of his conflicts with airlines have landed in court and have led to changes, such as a ruling by the agency that Air Canada must increase its compensation to passengers who are bumped from overbooked domestic flights.

However, airlines note that not all complaints filed with the CTA are legitimate.

Sunwing spokeswoman Jessica Patriquin says in some cases, passengers simply don't understand the rules around compensation and expect to be compensated more than is appropriate.

"As a result, that process may feel as though they're going in 'circles,'" Patriquin said in an email.

Sunwing also noted that all of the complaints it was mentioned in during the period in question have been resolved.

Meanwhile, in response to a number of complaints that Air Canada failed to notify passengers of its new check-in time, the carrier argues that it extensively promoted the change via news releases, social media, email notifications and on its website.

It also admits that customers looking to resolve issues after their flight have to do so via email, noting that it's easier to deal with more complex, post-flight issues such as claims and refunds online.

Meanwhile, Iberia says the customer who complained booked his flight through the website Expedia and it was up to the portal, not the airline, to notify the customer of the change.

The Canadian Press


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