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So your flight got cancelled — here’s what you need to know about compensation

What responsibility do Canadian airlines have to passengers as the summer travel season gets in full swing? What are your rights as a traveller? Here's what you need to know.

'You kind of wish they could at least hand out food vouchers,' said one traveller

A man lies down on the floor at an airport with a pet carrier and a luggage carriage nearby.

Regina resident Ryan Coulter was on his way back from a vacation in Tennessee last weekend when the first leg of his trip — a flight from Nashville to Montreal — was diverted to Cincinnati because of thunderstorms.

After that forced him to miss a handful of connections on his way back to Saskatchewan, he landed in Vancouver, where he was given a brochure for hotels. Opting to forgo a $700 out-of-pocket expense, he instead hung out overnight in a food court until his flight home the next morning.

"You kind of wish they could at least hand out food vouchers when something happens, like the weather delays, all the [missed] connections," he told CBC News.

He's one of many Air Canada passengers whose flights were cancelled or delayed during Canada Day weekend, with almost 2,000 flights affected during a three-day period. Due to the weather being outside of the airline's control, Coulter wasn't eligible for compensation of any kind.

So what is a Canadian airline's responsibility to passengers as the summer travel season gets in full swing? What are your rights as a traveller? Here's what you need to know.

If a disruption is out of the airline's control

A young girl uses a cellphone while waiting in an airport.

Airlines have to comply with Canada's Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR). When a flight is delayed or cancelled, airlines must first inform passengers of the reason in plain language, regardless of whether the situation is in their control or not. They also have to ensure that the traveller completes their journey.

A spokesperson for Air Canada told CBC News that the Canada Day weekend disruptions were due to bad weather, particularly storms in the U.S. and Montreal. It also cited the busy travel season.

"As with any system, when it is operating at full capacity it may slow processes down and take longer to recover when issues arise," the statement said.

The APPR lists ten scenarios that would count as being outside of an airline's control, including bad weather, war, a medical emergency, airport issues or a security threat. If an earlier flight impacted by something out of the airline's control later affects a connecting flight, you won't be compensated for the second leg of your travels, either.

Close up headshot of John Lawford, with blurred buildings in the background.

Airlines also don't have to provide food, drink or overnight lodging if they determine that a delay or cancellation was beyond their control. But one advocate says not to give up if an airline shrugs its shoulders.

"Don't take Air Canada at their word that it's outside their control," said John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa. "Because if you concede that something is outside their control, then they don't owe you compensation."

When a flight is delayed for more than three hours, the airline has to rebook passengers on the soonest possible flight to their destination, should the traveller want them to.

But if your reason for travel was made futile by a missed flight or a long delay, the airline has to refund the ticket if a customer asks them to, and arrange for that person's return to their original location.

The airline always has to communicate the reason for disrupting travels and what recourse an affected passenger might have against the carrier. Another rule under the APPR: Expect an update every thirty minutes until you have a new departure time or itinerary.

If a disruption is in the airline's control

Several travellers stand with their luggage outside an airport.

If you're delayed for three hours or more, or if your flight is cancelled, the airline has to provide a refund or arrange alternate travel free of charge — either on the next available flight (on that airline or a different one) that is travelling on a similar route within nine hours of the original departure time.

They could also offer transportation to another airport within a reasonable distance that has an appropriate flight for you.

If your trip becomes useless because of the disruption, or if the arrangements offered don't fit your needs for another reason, the airline has to refund your ticket and get you on a flight back to your original location.

Refunds have to be sent within 30 days after the day it becomes the airline's responsibility to provide them, and they must be made in the original form of payment; the airline can also offer a different form of refund — such as a voucher — with some conditions.

There are different levels of financial compensation depending on how long your flight has been delayed. For delays at arrival between three to six hours, the amount is $400; between six and 9 hours, it's $700; and for nine hours or more, it's $1,000 — though these numbers could change if you're travelling with a smaller airline.

What travellers can do

An airplane is seen ascending.

Once three days have passed after you arrive at your final destination, you can file a formal claim with Air Canada customer relations to seek compensation. If 30 days pass after that and you aren't satisfied with how the claim has been handled, you can kick it up to the Canadian Transportation Agency.

"One small change has been made to the regulations so that the onus of proof is now clearly on the airline to show that something was outside their control," said Lawford.

As CBC News reported earlier this year, the CTA is experiencing a massive backlog after a chaotic holiday season that left the agency with over 40,000 complaints to parse through as of March. New complaints have to be resolved within three months, according to Lawford.

Nolan Magee, a Coquitlam, B.C. resident who travelled to Rome from Vancovuer in May after four rescheduled flights, three hours on a tarmac and a day-late departure without a voucher for an overnight hotel stay.

Air Canada didn't provide a specific reason for the disruption, citing "unexpected business or operational constraints" in one of the booking references that Magee shared with CBC News. Magee said he was insulted by the airline's eventual compensation offer of $300.

"I think they're taking advantage of this because the only official recompense that a passenger has in this situation is to make an official complaint through the [CTA]," Magee said. "Air Canada knows that they can refuse to pay what they should be paying and [that] our only recourse has a two-year delay."

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