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Can I sue for flight cancellations?

Arriving at the airport to find out that the flight was cancelled. - iStockphoto, Getty Images

Your bags are packed, you're ready to go… but your plane isn't. A cancelled flight can throw a major wrench into your travel plans, potentially costing you time and money. So what can you do?

You can try to bring legal action against an airline. In Canada, carriers have faced lawsuits for injuries sustained on board, seat prices and failing to serve in both official languages, among other things. But flight cancellations are a constant threat and given the sometimes-unpredictable nature of travel, the airlines know how to protect themselves from liability. Suing an airline will be difficult and expensive.

Check the fine print

Each airline has a tariff, also known as a contract of carriage, which is the fine-print agreement you essentially agree to when you buy your ticket. The tariff limits the airline's liability in case of cancellation and other mishaps. Check out your airline's tariff to investigate its policy on cancellations.

Depending on what it says, your legal options may be very limited. Generally, they will say they reserve the right to cancel flights for a wide variety of reasons.

Carriers aren't liable for cancellations due to circumstances beyond their control, such as bad weather, airport closure and force majeure, the umbrella term that can include wars, riots, volcanoes and any other extraordinary circumstance.

Nor can they be held responsible for "damages such as stress, inconvenience, loss of income or loss of enjoyment as a result of a schedule irregularity," according to the Canadian Transportation Agency.

Given the limited liability, you may not be able to sue. But there are other options.

Learn your "flight rights"

The tariff is also a statement of your rights as a passenger and will outline any compensation you're entitled to due to a cancellation.

Under the 2008 Flight Rights code of conduct created by the federal government, airlines must do one the following in the event of a cancellation:

  • find you a seat on another flight they operate;
  • buy you a seat on another airline with which it has a mutual interline traffic agreement (a partnership between airlines that allows one to issue tickets on another's behalf);
  • refund the unused portion of your ticket.

Although the major Canadian carriers have voluntarily agreed to the Flight Rights code, it may not apply to your airline.

Also read up on the Montreal Convention, an international treaty documenting airline liability. Articles 19 and 22 of the treaty outline compensation and liability for delays.

Once you're familiar with the applicable laws and tariffs, how best to take action?

The simplest option is to file a detailed complaint directly to the airline. A letter to the legal department can yield greater results than one to the customer service office. Cite the specific sections of the airline's tariff and the Montreal Convention to boost your argument.

If a direct complaint isn't effective, you can also appeal to the Canadian Transportation Authority, which can adjudicate your dispute.

If those routes are ineffective, you can consider a lawsuit, but it may be a bumpy ride.

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