Are airlines liable for winter-storm cancellations?

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Flying somewhere in the next couple of days? Think again.

Authorities have cancelled nearly 6,000 flights across North America in anticipation of an “historic” snowstorm that’s expected to dump up to 90 centimetres of snow and has already triggered a state of emergency in New York and New Jersey.

Yes, 6,000 flights over two days. So if you had plans, you may want to readjust your expectations. Look forward to even-longer lines, lots of frustration or maybe a Planes, Trains and Automobiles-type adventure.

But can you look forward to any compensation from the airlines?

It’s possible, but don’t expect too much. Given the unpredictability and risk of air travel, airlines are experts at protecting themselves from liability, especially from something as mundane as a storm — no matter how big.

So what are you entitled to?

First of all, know that lawsuits are a non-starter.

Check the tariff, also known as the contract of carriage, for your airline. The tariff is the fine-print agreement you consent to when you buy your ticket. It outlines the airline’s policies and liabilities for mishaps and cancellations.

Carriers aren’t liable for cancellations due to circumstances beyond their control, such as: bad weather, airport closure, and force majeure — an umbrella term that covers them in the event of wars, riots, volcanoes, and other extraordinary circumstances.

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.

However, a tariff also outlines your “flight rights” and it covers 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 of 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. In 2013, a federal regulator ordered Porter Airlines to change its tariff, which said it didn't owe compensation for cancellations or missed connections.

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.

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