Denied Boarding: A Guide
Table of contents
New refund regulations are now in effect for flights that are cancelled or have long delays due to a situation outside the airline’s control. The new regulations apply to flights taken on or after September 8, 2022.
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This is a guide explaining passenger rights and airline obligations in the event a passenger is denied boarding. These apply to flights to, from and within Canada, including connecting flights. If a passenger is denied boarding, the airline operating the affected flight is responsible for meeting obligations to that passenger. Specifically, this guide explains:
- the concept of "denied boarding" and how it is different from "refusal to transport";
- how airlines' obligations differ depending on whether they deny boarding for reasons within their control or outside their control; and
- what airlines must do for the affected passengers in those different cases.
This guide also provides tips regarding some common denied boarding situations. These are meant to help both airlines and passengers understand what factors the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) would consider if a passenger complained to the CTA.
2. What is denied boarding?
Denied boarding occurs when a passenger has a valid ticket for a flight, but is not allowed to occupy a seat on board the aircraft because the number of passengers who have checked in and are at the gate on time is greater than the number of available seats that can be occupied. Passengers presenting themselves for travel must also have confirmed reservations and valid travel documents.
Denied boarding may result if:
- the airline intentionally oversells the actual number of seats on the aircraft (known as "overbooking"); or
- there are fewer seats than originally anticipated, for example, because the aircraft has been exchanged for a smaller one.
Denying a passenger boarding because there are not enough seats is not the same as refusing to transport them, for example:
- for health, safety, or security reasons;
- for failing to follow airline rules or instructions;
- because a passenger does not have appropriate travel documents; or
- the passenger has failed to respect check-in and departure gate cut-off time limits.
The obligations discussed in this guide do not apply to refusal to transport. Airlines are still required to set out their policies in their tariffs and to indicate when they will refuse to transport a passenger and under what circumstances.
3. Three categories of denied boarding
Airlines have certain minimum obligations if they deny a passenger boarding. Their responsibilities depend on whether the reason they deny boarding is within their control, within their control but required for safety, or outside their control. These concepts are described below and, in greater detail, in Types and Categories of Flight Disruption: A Guide.
Within the airline's control
Situations within an airline's control usually happen because of commercial decisions an airline makes in its day-to-day operations. The most common situation within an airline's control leading to denied boarding is overbooking (when the airline intentionally sold more tickets for the flight than were available on the aircraft). Switching out, for commercial reasons, an aircraft for one with fewer seats also falls into this category.
Within the airline's control, but required for safety
In this category, "required for safety" means "required by law to reduce risk to passengers." These are situations in which an airline must deny boarding in order to comply with laws in place to ensure the safety of the flight, the passenger in question, or other passengers on board (e.g., the Canadian Aviation Regulations and standards, Safety Management Systems). Examples include: malfunctions affecting the safety of certain seats, or having to limit the number of passengers on board to ensure safe weight and balance of the aircraft.
Outside the airline's control
Often, situations outside the airline's control affect all passengers on the aircraft, which would not be considered denied boarding, but rather a delay or cancellation of the entire flight. That said, some cases could affect only a few passengers. For example, an airline may need to deny boarding to a passenger in order to accommodate the seating of an air marshal or for emergency medical transportation, which would be considered outside the airline's control.
4. Large and small airlines
Some of the specific steps airlines must take in a denied boarding situation depend on whether they are a large airline or a small airline. These sizes are defined in regulation. An airline is a large airline if it transported at least two million passengers during each of the past two calendar years. This number includes enplaned and deplaned passengers in the airline's worldwide network.
Otherwise, the airline is a small airline.
5. Call for Volunteers
Before any airline denies boarding for reasons within its control or required for safety, it must look for volunteers from all confirmed passengers. It may not deny anyone boarding until it has taken this step.
We encourage airlines to negotiate with passengers, or offer benefits, to get them to voluntarily move to a later flight. We recommend that airlines advise passengers of denied boarding entitlements under the APPR and that these do not apply to volunteers who move to a later flight. Airlines must put in writing the benefits offered and the volunteering passenger must agree to them prior to the departure of their flight.
Denying boarding to an unwilling passenger should be an airline's last resort and passengers already on board cannot be denied boarding other than for safety reasons.
We also encourage airlines to look for volunteers in situations outside of their control. While this is not an obligation under the APPR, seeking volunteers instead of denying boarding to a passenger against their will may quickly resolve the situation to everyone's satisfaction.
6. Priority Boarding
If an airline must deny boarding to a passenger against their will because it has been unable to find a volunteer willing to give up their seat, the airline must take measures to prioritize boarding. The following passengers must be the last people to be denied boarding against their will, in the following order: unaccompanied minors; persons with a disability and their support person, service animal, or emotional support animal, if any; passengers who are travelling with their family; and passengers who were previously denied boarding on the same ticket.
Once the airline has identified passengers from the priority list, and ensured that these passengers will be able to board, the airline may proceed to deny boarding from among the remaining passengers based on boarding priorities found in their tariff.
7. Passengers already on the aircraft
While passengers who have already boarded the aircraft may volunteer to give up their seat, the airline may not choose an already-seated passenger for denied boarding, unless it is for safety reasons. As noted above, this prohibition does not impact the airline's authority to refuse transport to a passenger based on the refusal to transport rule in its tariff.
8. Obligations: Situations within the airline's control
If an airline denies boarding against a passenger's will, it must:
- make alternate travel arrangements or provide a refund
- provide minimum assistance (standards of treatment)
- pay compensation for inconvenience
- communicate key information to passengers
Alternate travel arrangements and refunds
Airlines must re-book the passenger's travel immediately and free of charge. The alternate travel arrangements made must ensure the passenger gets to their destination as soon as it is feasible.
Large and small airlines have different obligations for making alternate travel arrangements.
Large airlines must book the passenger on the next available flight that is operated by them, or an airline with which they have a commercial agreement. The new flight:
- must take any reasonable route out of the same airport to the passenger’s destination indicated on their original ticket; and
- must depart within nine hours of the departure time indicated on the passenger's original ticket.
If the airline cannot provide a reservation on a flight which departs within nine hours, they must book the passenger, as soon as possible, on a flight operated by any airline. The new flight:
- must take any reasonable route out of the same airport to the passenger's destination indicated on their original ticket. This may mean buying a ticket for the passenger on a competing airline; and,
- must depart within 48 hours of the departure time indicated on the passenger's original ticket.
If the airline cannot provide a reservation on a flight which departs within 48 hours of the original departure time, the airline must book the passenger as soon as possible, on a flight operated by any airline, from a nearby airport. They will also have to transport the passenger to that airport, free of charge. The new flight:
- must take any reasonable route out of the nearby airport to the passenger's destination indicated on their original ticket.
Small airlines must book the passenger on the next available flight operated by them or an airline with which they have a commercial agreement. The flight must take any reasonable route from the same airport to the passenger's destination indicated on their original ticket. Small airlines do not have to book the passenger with an airline with which they do not have a commercial agreement.
Refund of additional services
In addition to providing a refund for re-booking passengers into a lower class of service, an airline must provide a refund for added services purchased if:
- those services were not received on the alternate flight; or
- those services were paid for a second time.
For example, if a prepaid meal was purchased and a meal was not available on the alternate flight, or the meal was paid for again, the airline is obligated to refund the cost of that prepaid meal.
If an airline (large or small) offers alternate travel arrangements but these do not meet the passenger’s needs, and the passenger is no longer at the point of origin on their itinerary, the airline must refund the ticket and provide the passenger, free of charge, with a confirmed reservation back to the point of origin on the ticket.
In any other case, when the alternate travel arrangements offered do not meet the passenger's travel needs, the operating airline must refund the unused portion of the ticket.
Form of refund
Airlines must make refunds to the person who purchased the ticket, in the same form of payment in which the ticket or additional service was purchased.
Airlines may offer another form of refund (for example, travel vouchers), but only if:
- it does not expire;
- the airline informs the person in writing of the value of the ticket and their right to receive a refund in that amount by the original payment method; and
- the person confirms in writing that they have been informed of their right to a refund by the original method of payment and instead have chosen the other form of refund.
The airline will be required to provide the refund within 30 days, regardless of the refund format (for example, cash, credit, alternate forms).
Airlines have to provide passengers certain amenities free of charge while they wait for the new flights being arranged for them.
Reasonable quantities of food and drink
Airlines must provide a reasonable amount of food and drink. They should take into account the following factors when determining the quantity and timing:
- Length of delay/time of day: Airlines should consider the length of the delay and the time of day it occurred when deciding how much food to provide and when. For example, it would be reasonable to expect greater quantities of food at typical meal times and after waiting for a long period of time.
- Location of airport: Where the delay takes place may affect the type and range of food and drink options (e.g., Canada's North and remote areas).
Access to means of communication
Airlines must give passengers access to communication, free of charge. How they do this depends on the circumstances. For example, the airline could loan the passenger a cell phone, provide a pre-paid calling card, or provide access to Wi-Fi.
When a passenger will have to wait overnight for a new flight (and where this would not have been necessary for the original flight), the airline must offer the passenger hotel or other comparable accommodation. This must:
- be free of charge to the passenger;
- be reasonable, considering the passenger's location;
- include transportation to and from the accommodation.
Refusing or limiting assistance
An airline may only limit or refuse to provide assistance if doing so would further delay the passenger. For example, if a passenger has been denied boarding, but their new flight leaves within 30 minutes, offering food or airport food vouchers to passengers could impede the passenger's boarding process and continued travels.
In all denied boarding cases within the airline's control except those required for safety, the airline must compensate the passenger for the inconvenience. The amount of compensation depends on how late the passenger arrives at their destination, compared to the arrival time indicated on their original ticket. Specifically, airlines must pay:
- $900 if the passenger arrives less than six hours late;
- $1,800 if the passenger arrives six hours or more late, but less than nine hours; and
- $2,400, if the passenger arrives nine hours or more late.
A passenger can only receive compensation for inconvenience under the APPR if they have not already received compensation for the same denial of boarding event under the other air passenger protection rules of another jurisdiction. Passengers have the right to seek compensation under the regime of their choice – airlines cannot refuse to compensate a passenger simply because that passenger would also be eligible under another jurisdiction's rules. Airlines are encouraged to track claims submitted to them under other rules to make sure the passenger receives compensation for inconvenience once.
When to pay
The airline should pay passengers their compensation immediately. If it is not operationally feasible to pay before the passenger departs on a new flight, the airline must give the passenger written confirmation of the amount to which they are entitled. The airline must base this amount on the estimated time by which the passenger’s arrival at the final destination will be delayed.
If the actual delay turns out to be longer than the estimate, the airline must adjust the compensation to reflect the actual delay.
How to pay
Airlines must offer passengers their compensation in monetary form. This can include cash, cheque, bank drafts, and electronic bank transfers. It is recognized that airlines might not have cash on hand at boarding gates or anywhere in an airport terminal. They are not required to have cash on hand, but we encourage them to use all available means to pay passengers immediately.
Airlines may offer another form of compensation, such as vouchers, but only if:
- they tell the passenger what monetary amount they are entitled to;
- they tell the passenger the value of the other form of compensation they are offering;
- this other form is greater in value than the monetary amount the passenger is entitled to; and
- this other form of compensation has no expiry date.
The passenger must confirm in writing (e.g., by signing a document) that the airline informed them of the monetary amount they were entitled to and that they elected to accept the other form of compensation.
The amount of the compensation airlines provide must be equal or greater than the required amount of compensation in Canadian dollars. If a passenger requests compensation in a particular currency, airlines are encouraged to accommodate them, if possible. It is recognized that it may not be feasible to offer all currencies.
The compensation must be paid to the passenger who experienced the disruption, regardless of who paid for their ticket.
Communicating with Passengers
Airlines have specific communication obligations that they must meet. In every instance of denied boarding, they must tell affected passengers:
- why they are being denied boarding;
- whether or not the reason requires the airline to compensate them for the inconvenience;
- if applicable, how much the airline must pay them and how the amount changes with the length of their delay;
- what assistance (food, drink, and other) the airline must give them; and
- about their rights and options for making a complaint, including to the CTA.
This information must be shared directly with the passenger audibly, and, if requested, visually (e.g., in writing) at the time boarding is denied. Airlines must also share the information with the passenger through the means of communication the passenger has selected (e.g., SMS or e-mail) from among those available. If the passenger has not expressed a preference, airlines may use their usual method of communicating with passengers.
All communication must be available in a format that is accessible to persons with disabilities.
9. Obligations: Situations within the airline's control, but required for safety
If an airline denies a passenger boarding for reasons within its control, but required for safety purposes, it does not have to compensate the passenger. Otherwise, it has all the obligations described under "Situations within the airline's control", above.
10. Obligations: Situations outside the airline's control
If an airline denies boarding for reasons outside its control, it does not have to look for volunteers (though this is still encouraged), compensate affected passengers, or meet any assistance requirements. However, the airline must follow the communication requirements noted under "Situations within the airline's control", above. It must also make alternate travel arrangements as follows.
Alternate travel arrangements
In situations outside the airline's control, the airline operating the flight must ensure that the passenger completes their journey, as soon as feasible.
Large airlines must book the passenger on the next available flight that is operated by them, or an airline with which they have a commercial agreement. The new flight:
- may take any reasonable route from the airport where the passenger is located to the passenger’s destination; and
- must depart within 48 hours of the end of the event that caused the airline to deny boarding to the passenger.
The new flight must depart within 48 hours after the departure time indicated on the passenger's original ticket.
If the airline cannot meet this obligation, it must book the passenger, as soon as possible, on a flight operated by any airline on any reasonable route out of the same airport to the passenger's destination. This may mean buying a ticket for the passenger on a competing airline.
If the airline cannot provide the reservation from the same airport, the airline must book the passenger as soon as possible from a nearby airport, and transport the passenger to that airport, free of charge.
Small airlines must book the passenger on the next available flight operated by them or an airline with which they have a commercial agreement. The flight must take any reasonable route from the same airport to the passenger's destination. Small airlines are not required to book the passenger with an airline with which they do not have a commercial agreement.
There is no refund requirement if an airline denies boarding for reasons outside its control unless it is provided in the airline’s tariff. If the airline's tariff includes a policy allowing a passenger to seek a refund of the remaining value of their unused ticket because they no longer wish to continue their travel or make use of the alternate travel arrangement offered, the airline must at any time provide this refund to affected passengers. If a passenger accepts such a refund, their journey ends and the airline has no further obligation towards them.
Being denied boarding causes the passenger great inconvenience. In the event that there are more passengers ready and available to board than there are seats that can be occupied on the aircraft, denying boarding to unwilling passengers should be a last resort. Calls for volunteers to give up their seat in exchange for benefits can resolve the situation quickly, to the satisfaction of everyone involved.
If an airline does have to deny boarding, it is that airline's responsibility to get the affected passengers to their destination as soon as is feasible. Unless the situation is outside the airline's control, it must also ensure that passengers are comfortable while they wait, and are compensated for the inconvenience when required.
Annex A: Legislative and Regulatory References
Canada Transportation Act
86.11 (1) The Agency shall, after consulting with the Minister, make regulations in relation to flights to, from and within Canada, including connecting flights,
(a) respecting the carrier’s obligation to make terms and conditions of carriage and information regarding any recourse available against the carrier, as specified in the regulations, readily available to passengers in language that is simple, clear and concise;
(b) respecting the carrier’s obligations in the case of flight delay, flight cancellation or denial of boarding, including
(i) the minimum standards of treatment of passengers that the carrier is required to meet and the minimum compensation the carrier is required to pay for inconvenience when the delay, cancellation or denial of boarding is within the carrier’s control,
(ii) the minimum standards of treatment of passengers that the carrier is required to meet when the delay, cancellation or denial of boarding is within the carrier’s control, but is required for safety purposes, including in situations of mechanical malfunctions,
(iii) the carrier’s obligation to ensure that passengers complete their itinerary when the delay, cancellation or denial of boarding is due to situations outside the carrier’s control, such as natural phenomena and security events
Air Passenger Protection Regulations
Obligations when within carrier's control
Denial of boarding
12 (4) In the case of a denial of boarding, the carrier must
(a) provide passengers affected by the denial of boarding with the information set out in section 13;
(b) deny boarding in accordance with section 15 and provide the standard of treatment set out in section 16 to passengers affected by the denial of boarding;
(c) provide alternate travel arrangements or a refund, in the manner set out in section 17; and
(d) provide the minimum compensation for inconvenience for denial of boarding in the manner set out in section 20.
Information — cancellation, delay, denial of boarding
13 (1) A carrier must provide the following information to the passengers who are affected by a cancellation, delay or a denial of boarding:
(a) the reason for the delay, cancellation or denial of boarding;
(b) the compensation to which the passenger may be entitled for the inconvenience;
(c) the standard of treatment for passengers, if any; and
(d) the recourse available against the carrier, including their recourse to the Agency.
Communication every 30 minutes
(2) In the case of a delay, the carrier must communicate status updates to passengers every 30 minutes until a new departure time for the flight is set or alternate travel arrangements have been made for the affected passenger.
(3) The carrier must communicate to passengers any new information as soon as feasible.
Audible and visible announcement
(4) The information referred to in subsection (1) must be provided by means of audible announcements and, upon request, by means of visible announcements.
Method of communication
(5) The information referred to in subsection (1) must also be provided to the passenger using the available communication method that they have indicated that they prefer, including a method that is compatible with adaptive technologies intended to assist persons with disabilities.
Denial of boarding — request for volunteers
15 (1) If paragraph 11(5)(b) or 12(4)(b) applies to a carrier, it must not deny boarding to a passenger unless it has asked all passengers if they are willing to give up their seat.
Passenger on aircraft
(2) The carrier must not deny boarding to a passenger who is already on board the aircraft, unless the denial of boarding is required for reasons of safety.
Confirmation of benefit
(3) If a carrier offers a benefit in exchange for a passenger willingly giving up their seat in accordance with subsection (1) and a passenger accepts the offer, it must provide the passenger with a written confirmation of that benefit before the flight departs.
Priority for boarding
(4) If denial of boarding is necessary, the carrier must select the passengers who will be denied boarding, giving priority for boarding to passengers in the following order:
(a) an unaccompanied minor;
(b) a person with a disability and their support person, service animal, or emotional support animal, if any;
(c) a passenger who is travelling with family members; and
(d) a passenger who was previously denied boarding on the same ticket.
Treatment when boarding is denied
16 (1) If paragraph 11(5)(b) or 12(4)(b) applies to a carrier, it must, before a passenger boards the flight reserved as part of an alternate travel arrangement, provide them with the following treatment free of charge:
(a) food and drink in reasonable quantities, taking into account the length of the wait, the time of day and the location of the passenger; and
(b) access to a means of communication.
(2) If the carrier expects that the passenger will be required to wait overnight for a flight reserved as part of alternate travel arrangements, the carrier must offer, free of charge, hotel or other comparable accommodation that is reasonable in relation to the location of the passenger, as well as transportation to the hotel or other accommodation and back to the airport.
Refusing or limiting treatment
(3) The carrier may limit or refuse to provide a standard of treatment referred to in subsection (1) or (2) if providing that treatment would further delay the passenger.
Compensation for denial of boarding
20 (1) If paragraph 12(4)(d) applies to a carrier, it must provide the following minimum compensation:
(a) $900, if the arrival of the passenger’s flight at the destination that is indicated on the original ticket is delayed by less than six hours;
(b) $1,800, if the arrival of the passenger’s flight at the destination that is indicated on the original ticket is delayed by six hours or more, but less than nine hours; and
(c) $2,400, if the arrival of the passenger’s flight at the destination that is indicated on the original ticket is delayed by nine hours or more.
(2) The carrier must provide the compensation to the passenger as soon as it is operationally feasible, but not later than 48 hours after the time of the denial of boarding.
Estimated arrival time
(3) If the compensation is paid before the arrival of the flight reserved as part of alternate travel arrangements at the destination that is indicated on their ticket, that compensation is determined based on the flight’s expected arrival.
(4) If it is not possible to provide the compensation before the boarding time of the flight reserved as part of alternate travel arrangements, the carrier must provide the passenger with a written confirmation of the amount of the compensation that is owed.
(5) If the arrival of the passenger’s flight at the destination that is indicated on their original ticket is after the time it was expected to arrive when the compensation was paid or confirmed in writing and the amount that was paid or confirmed no longer reflects the amount due in accordance with subsection (1), the carrier must adjust the amount of the compensation accordingly.
Regulations Amending the Air Passenger Protection Regulations
Denial of boarding — outside carrier’s control
(1.4) If paragraph 10(3)(d) applies to a carrier, it must provide to the passenger, free of charge, the following alternate travel arrangements to ensure that the passenger completes their itinerary as soon as feasible:
(a) in the case of a large carrier, the arrangements specified in subsection (1) or, if it cannot provide such arrangements, a confirmed reservation in accordance with paragraph (1.1)(a); or
(b) in the case of a small carrier, a confirmed reservation in accordance with paragraph (1.1)(b).
The Regulations are amended by adding the following after section 18:
Refund of additional services
18.1 (1) A carrier must refund the cost of any additional services purchased in connection with a passenger’s original ticket if the passenger has been provided with alternate travel arrangements under section 17 or 18 and
(a) the passenger did not receive those services; or
(b) those services were paid for a second time.
Refund for lower class of service
(2) If the alternate travel arrangements provide for a lower class of service than the original ticket, the carrier must refund the difference in the cost of the applicable portion of the ticket.
Method used for refund
18.2 (1) All refunds provided under these Regulations must be paid to the person who purchased the ticket or additional service and must be paid using the method used for the original payment, unless
(a) the person has been informed in writing of the monetary value of the original ticket or additional service and the availability of a refund by the method used for the original payment;
(b) the refund is offered in another form that does not expire; and
(c) the person confirms, in writing, that they have been informed of their right to receive the refund by the method used for the original payment and have chosen to receive the refund in another form.
(2) Refunds must be provided by a carrier within 30 days after the day on which the carrier becomes obligated to provide the refund
The portion of subsection 19(2) of the Regulations before paragraph (a) is replaced by the following:
Compensation in case of refund
(2) Despite subsection (1), if paragraph 12(2)(d) or (3)(d) applies to a carrier and the passenger’s ticket is refunded in accordance with subsection 17(2), the carrier must provide a minimum compensation of
Item 45 of the schedule to the Regulations is repealed.
Coming into Force
These Regulations come into force on the 90th day after the day on which they are registered.