Your flight was cancelled? You got bumped? You arrived but your luggage didn't? If something goes wrong when you fly to or from Canada or within the country, you have legal rights.
Your rights when you fly are set out in the airline’s “tariff”
When you fly with an airline, your rights are set out in the airline’s “tariff”. A tariff is the airline’s contract with its passengers. It contains your rights and obligations as an airline passenger and the airline’s rights and its responsibilities to you. It covers things like how the airline will deal with delays, cancellations, and lost or damaged baggage.
Tariffs vary from airline to airline. In other words, your rights will vary depending on which airline you are flying with.
The terms in an airline tariff:
- must respect certain legal requirements—for example, they must not create undue obstacles to the mobility of persons with disabilities
- must be reasonable and fair
- must be applied the same way for everyone, as much as possible
Airlines must clearly display their tariff at their offices and on their websites.
Links to tariffs from over 100 airlines are posted on the Canadian Transportation Agency website.
Your right to a single, all-inclusive ticket price for air travel
There are rules designed to help you determine the total price you have to pay for air travel. Any advertising directed at the public for a flight must include the total price you have to pay, including all taxes, fees and charges. The advertising must include any limitations on when the flight can be booked and any limits on when you can travel. It must also give you access to a breakdown of the taxes, fees and charges.
The total price must be at least as prominent as any other pricing information found in the advertising and must be the first price presented to you.
These advertising rules apply to travel within Canada or originating in Canada. They apply to advertising through any media, including newspapers, TV, radio, online booking systems, the internet and social media.
If your flight is rescheduled, delayed or cancelled
"We booked a cruise from San Diego to Vancouver. We planned to fly to San Diego, arriving by noon. That way we would have all afternoon to get to our cruise before it set sail at 7pm. But our flight was delayed by seven hours and we missed our cruise. We expected that the airline would cover our hotel and airfare to catch up with the cruise. But the airline told us they wouldn’t cover the full cost. They pointed to a court case finding that travellers in a similar situation were 50% responsible for their losses, for not flying in the day before their cruise."
– Tina, Burnaby
Flight schedules can sometimes change, and flights can also be delayed or cancelled for various reasons. The airline should make reasonable efforts to inform you of any delays, cancellations and schedule changes, and the reasons for them.
When an airline makes a change to a scheduled flight, the airline might offer you a refund or rebook you. But you shouldn't automatically assume that they will. An airline's legal obligation will depend on the circumstances and on your contract with the airline, set out in the airline’s tariff.
If the flight is delayed
For international flights, an international treaty called the Montreal Convention says that the airline is liable for any damage caused by delay. However, there is an exception—if the airline shows that it took all measures to avoid the damage or that it was impossible to take such measures.
The result is that if a flight is delayed, airlines usually don't offer you compensation if the situation was unavoidable, due to weather conditions, or an “act of God”. An act of God is an unforeseen event that is not within the control of a party to a contract that prevents the party from performing their obligations.
In cases of long delays, some airlines will offer vouchers for food and overnight accommodation on request.
Under the Montreal Convention, where the airline is at fault for a delayed flight, they are liable for losses caused by the delay—to a point.
Let’s say your flight to Europe was delayed by 24 hours due to a mechanical problem and you missed a train connection the day after your scheduled arrival. The airline would be liable for your losses. This would include your overnight accommodation, the train ticket, and any other costs to put you in the position you would have been had there been no delay.
But let’s say you had booked your train connection to leave four hours after your scheduled arrival. In that situation, you might be found partly at fault for your losses. Cases suggest that the more important it is that you arrive by a certain time at the destination (financially important or otherwise), the more time you should leave yourself as a “buffer”.
You are not entitled to compensation for inconvenience, stress, or loss of enjoyment as a result of a schedule irregularity.
If the flight is cancelled
If a flight is cancelled, airlines will often arrange alternate transportation to enable you to reach the destination named on your ticket. If this is not possible, you should be entitled to a refund of the unused portion of your ticket.
You may also be entitled to compensation for out-of-pocket expenses you have as a result of the cancellation, such as for taxi service or overnight accommodation.
Check the information you received when you made the booking to see what you’re supposed to get.
If you arrive late for a flight
Airlines have strict deadlines. If you arrive late at the airline’s check-in counter, the airline can refuse to let you on the flight.
With most airlines, you can check-in online, usually 24 hours before your flight leaves. But you still have a deadline to arrive at the gate for your flight and to check in your baggage. The airline’s tariff—your contract with the airline—will cover what happens if you arrive late at the gate or baggage drop-off area.
If you miss a connection
If you miss a connecting flight because a flight is delayed or has been re-scheduled, your rights depend on whether the flights are issued on the same or multiple tickets.
If the flights are all on the same ticket, the airline should get you onto the next available flight. If that is not possible, the airline will usually offer to refund the unused portion of your ticket.
If the flights are on multiple tickets, you are less protected. The airline is only responsible to get you to the destination named on the relevant ticket involved. Airlines usually don't offer you compensation if you missed a connection and your itinerary involved multiple tickets.
When booking connecting flights with different airlines, be sure to allow sufficient time between each flight. Allow enough time to get off the plane, retrieve your baggage, and allow for security screening and any necessary terminal changes to reach the next flight.
If you get “bumped” from a flight
Airlines often overbook flights. When this happens, the airline must first make a request for volunteers willing to take a later flight before a passenger can be denied boarding (“bumped”) involuntarily.
If there are not enough volunteers, the remaining passengers will be subject to being bumped based on the boarding priorities set out in the airline’s tariff, which is its contract with passengers. The tariff must give considerationto the needs of persons with disabilities and unaccompanied minors.
Airlines will usually help passengers that are bumped find a seat on the next available flight at no additional cost.
As well, airlines are required to offer compensation to passengers who are bumped. The amount of compensation depends on the length of the delay and the airline. For a domestic flight on Air Canada, the compensation for a delay of more than six hours is $800; on WestJet, the compensation for a delay of more than two hours can be up to $1,300.
For lengthy delays, most airlines are also required to give you food or accommodation vouchers under their ticket agreement.
If you suffer an injury
If you suffer a physical injury as a result of an accident on a flight or while boarding or deplaning, you are entitled to compensation.
For international flights, the Montreal Convention says that the airline is strictly liable for “damage sustained in the case of death or bodily injury of a passenger”.
You are not entitled to compensation for pure psychological injury, including stress and inconvenience.
The amount of compensation for a physical injury is limited by the Montreal Convention based on a formula that is reviewed every five years.
If your luggage is lost, damaged or delayed
What happens if your luggage is lost, damaged or delayed depends on the airline you’re flying with. The airline’s tariff will set out the terms that apply. There will typically be a process you must follow to make a claim, a time limit to file your claim, and a maximum amount that the airline will compensate you.
For example, the Air Canada domestic tariff that applies for its flights within Canada says that if your luggage is lost, damaged or delayed:
- you must give “preliminary notice” to the airline of the loss, damage or delay before leaving the airport
- you must give notice of the claim in writing to the airline within 21 days of the date of loss (within 7 days in the case of damaged luggage)
- you are limited to $1,500 per passenger in compensation unless you declared a higher value in advance when you checked in
Your claim should include an itemized list of your lost or damaged items and their individual values or the specific out-of-pocket expenses incurred to replace or repair any mishandled item.
The airline is responsible for hand delivering any lost or delayed luggage to you.
If you discover that your luggage did not arrive with you or it is damaged, be sure to report it immediately to the airline, ideally before you leave the airport. There are specific time limits for reporting mishandled luggage.
Step 1. Contact the airline
If you have a problem with a flight, give the airline the first chance to solve the problem.
Contact the airline’s customer services department. Be firm and businesslike, but polite. Calmly and accurately describe the problem and what you want the airline to do to solve it.
Request specifics about how and when something will be done, and get the other person's name in case you have to refer to this conversation later.
Write down any details of your complaint and keep it in your file. Make sure to date your notes.
Step 2. Send a complaint letter
If discussing the situation with the airline doesn’t resolve the problem, the next step is to send a complaint letter to them.
You should include:
- your name, address and contact number
- an explanation of the problem and the resolution you are seeking
- copies of your airline ticket and any other supporting documents
Send the letter to the airline’s customer services department or the contact specified in any complaint procedure the airline has in place. See the airline’s tariff or website for details on their procedure. If you want to be sure they receive your letter, send it by registered mail.
Keep a copy of your letter.
Allow the airline 30 days to respond.
Step 3. File a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency
If the airline does not respond to your complaint or if you are not satisfied with the airline’s response, file a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency. If your complaint is related to a disability or health issue, you can file an accessibility complaint.
The Canadian Transportation Agency can help resolve disputes with airlines relating to travel within, to and from Canada. Some common issues they can help with include flight delays, cancellations, missed connections, schedule changes, getting bumped, and lost or damaged baggage. The Agency does not deal with complaints about the quality or level of customer service provided by an airline.
On receiving your complaint, the Canadian Transportation Agency will first try facilitating your complaint. This involves a case officer assessing the issue and leading an informal exchange between you and the airline, usually by phone or email.
If facilitation doesn't resolve the issue, you can try mediation, where an Agency mediator will help you and the airline negotiate to reach a confidential settlement.
If mediation doesn’t result in a resolution, the Agency also offers a court-like process called adjudication, where a panel will make a decision based on the evidence provided.
Do I have a right to get off the plane if it sits on the runway for hours?
Possibly. If your plane is stuck at the gate or on the tarmac and your flight is delayed more than 90 minutes, you may have the right to get off the plane, as long as it's safe to disembark. It depends on the airline, but most of the major Canadian airlines have this condition in their tariff.