Types and Categories of Flight Disruption: 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.
Airport congestion and flight issues
What passengers need to know about delays, cancellations and missing baggage
This is a guide explaining the types and categories of flight disruption included in the Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR). These apply to flights to, from and within Canada, including connecting flights. In particular, it explains that the reasons for flight disruption fall into three categories:
- situations within the airline's control;
- situations within the airline's control but required for safety; and
- situations outside the airline's control.
It is important that passengers and airlines understand these different categories, because they determine what obligations airlines have towards passengers affected by flight disruptions. This guide therefore describes different disruption situations and which category they fall into. The guide also discusses considerations when determining the category into which a disruption falls.
This information is meant to help both airlines and passengers understand what factors the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) would consider if a passenger complained to the CTA about a flight disruption.
2. Types of flight disruption
In the context of the Air Passenger Protection Regulations, "flight disruption" is the collective term for the following events that prevent passengers from completing their itineraries on time:
- Flight and tarmac delays;
- Flight cancellations; and
- Denials of boarding.
3. Airline obligations
Airlines have obligations toward passengers affected by flight disruptions. More information on obligations in the event of flight delays and cancellations can be found in Flight Delays and Cancellations: A Guide. There are also specific requirements when a passenger is denied boarding that are described in Denied Boarding: A Guide.
The Air Transportation Regulations define a passenger as a person, who uses an airline's service by boarding the aircraft pursuant to a valid contract or arrangement. The APPR do not distinguish between passengers that paid for their tickets and those that did not (e.g., those travelling on reward miles).
In the event of a disruption, airlines must always keep passengers informed of their rights and the reason for a flight disruption. It is important for airlines to give passengers the clearest and most up-to-date information available so that they can understand the situation, and then provide updates as more information comes to light or if the situation changes. More information on communication requirements can be found in Communicating Key Information to Passengers: A Guide.
Airlines must also help passengers complete their itineraries (re-booking them on other flights). If the reason for the disruption is within an airline's control, it has additional obligations. These can include compensating passengers for inconveniencing them, and providing them with certain kinds of assistance (standards of treatment), specifically food and drink, access to means of communication and overnight accommodation.
Here are airlines' obligations depending on the reason for the flight disruption:
- Situations within the airline's control: keep the passenger informed, provide assistance, compensate the passenger, and re-book the passenger or provide a refund.
- Situations within the airline's control but required for safety: keep the passenger informed, provide assistance, and re-book the passenger or provide a refund.
- Situations outside the airline's control: keep the passenger, and re-book the passenger or, should the passenger not be rebooked within a reasonable time, provide a refund or other rebooking options.
The next sections look at each of these categories, and the situations they cover, in more detail. To decide which category a flight disruption falls into, an airline must assess the situation based on the APPR requirements and guidance from the CTA. This should be done independently from any other categorization of the delay that the airline does (for example, for internal purposes of the airline or to meet other reporting obligations).
4. Disruptions within the airline's control
This category concerns flights disrupted for reasons that are within the airline's control, other than safety. Often, these stem from commercial decisions the airline makes. They can also stem from decisions the airline makes in its day-to-day operations, such as how it manages aircraft maintenance and staffing schedules. Any issues found during scheduled maintenance would be considered within the airline's control. Note that the actions of contracted parties that support an airline's operations are generally considered to be "within the airline's control".
Flight disruptions caused by the following would generally be within an airline's control.
- Overbooking flights;
- Consolidating or cancelling flights with low passenger demand; and
- Similar actions aimed at maximizing revenue.
Flight disruptions caused by the following would generally be within an airline's control.
- Staff and flight crew scheduling and availability;
- Flight preparation activities like aircraft cleaning, baggage loading, and aircraft fueling; and
- Scheduled maintenance, including any subsequent repairs or required activities.
5. Disruptions within the airline's control but required for safety
In this category, "required for safety" means "required by law to reduce risk to passengers." This generally applies when an airline has to disrupt a flight to ensure the safety of the flight and people on board, for example, in accordance with the Canadian Aviation Regulations and standards. Mechanical malfunctions that impact safety are among the situations captured by this category.
This category does not include disruptions caused by scheduled maintenance, malfunctions identified during scheduled maintenance or malfunctions that do not impede the safe operation of the flight (for example, problems with the in-flight entertainment system). Such disruptions would be within an airline's control.
Airlines must continue to follow all safety requirements, including aircraft maintenance and record-keeping requirements. However, it is recognized that not all mechanical malfunctions can be foreseen or prevented through regular maintenance. Unexpected aircraft malfunctions may compromise safety and require the airline to:
- delay or cancel flights to be performed with the affected aircraft;
- find a substitute aircraft; or
- reduce the number of seats available on the aircraft.
Flight disruptions caused by these unexpected aircraft malfunctions (not identified in routine maintenance) would be within an airline's control, but required for safety.
Other disruptions within the airline's control but required for safety
Flight disruptions caused by the following would generally be within an airline's control, but required for safety.
- Decisions the airline makes based on its Safety Management System; and
- Safety-related decisions pilots in command of an aircraft make at their discretion.
6. Disruptions outside the airline's control
This category concerns flight disruptions caused by events over which the airline does not have control. For example, national or other broad safety and security concerns, medical emergencies, and natural phenomena could cause disruptions beyond the airline's control.
The following are examples of situations generally considered to be outside an airline's control.
Safety and security
- War or political instability;
- Illegal acts or sabotage (including cyber-attacks that cause severe disruptions to an airline's network);
- A manufacturing defect that reduces passenger safety, which is identified by the manufacturer or a competent authority;
- A NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) filed with an aviation authority to alert pilots of potential hazards along a flight route or at a relevant location;
- Official instructions from an official from a state or a law enforcement agency or from a person responsible for airport security (for example, delaying a flight so that they may carry out their duties, or a government order grounding flights); and
- Accidents involving the aircraft, such as collisions (e.g., with a bird, a drone, etc.).
- Flight diversions made so that a passenger can receive medical treatment or care.
- Weather conditions that make it impossible to safely operate the aircraft (for example, actual or forecasted blizzards, heavy winds, or lightning); and
- Natural disasters that, in the judgment of the airline or pilot in command, make it impossible to safely operate the aircraft (for example, tornados, hurricanes).
Other disruptions outside the airline's control
- Instructions from air traffic control;
- Airport operational issues; and
- Strikes or other labour disruptions at the carrier itself or an essential service provider, like an airport or an air navigation service provider.
There is no exhaustive list of events that could cause flight disruptions beyond an airline's control. The CTA may need to determine whether a specific situation falls in this category. Airlines should document situations leading to disruptions that they believe fall in this category, including unusual weather events.
When considering the reasons for flight disruptions, the complex nature of airline operations is recognized. Sometimes, there is not one reason for a disruption, but multiple reasons. In other cases, a reason normally found in one category (for example, "within the airline's control") belongs more fairly in a different category, due to extenuating circumstances such as third-party actions. Below are examples of various issues that can affect a flight disruption's category.
Multiple reasons or more than one disrupted flight
A flight disruption can be complex – it can evolve over time and there may be more than one reason. This can make it difficult for an airline to determine and categorize the reason for the disruption. If more than one flight on the passenger's itinerary was disrupted, that may make it difficult to determine the reason a passenger arrived late at their destination and decide if compensation is owed.
The airline must take this three-step approach in making these decisions:
Step 1: Identify what the different reasons were for the disruption(s), the length of delay that each reason caused, and which flight was affected (if there was more than one disrupted flight).
Step 2: Identify the primary reason. The primary reason has the most significant contribution to the flight disruption, or to the passenger arriving at their final destination late. Factors that can help identify the primary reason include what caused the longest delay, whether a connection was missed, and whether the different reasons or disruptions are related to one another.
Step 3: Categorize the disruption by determining the category of the primary reason.
|Example||Step 1: What are the different reasons, and length of delay for each?||Step 2: Which is the primary reason?||Step 3: What is the category?|
|One disrupted flight, multiple reasons||
3-hour total delay
1 hour due to airline scheduling error
2 hours due to de-icing, snow removal and airport capacity issues following a snow storm
It was the cause of the longest period of delay.
Bad weather is outside airline control.
|Two disrupted flights||
3-hour total delay at final destination
First flight: 4-hour weather delay
Passenger still makes connection because second flight is also delayed.
Second flight: 3-hour delay because airline chose to consolidate flights.
Second flight delay:
It was the only one that directly caused the passenger to arrive at their destination late.
While first flight delay was longer, the passenger was able to make their connection. Even if the first flight had been on time, the passenger still would have arrived three hours late at their destination because of the second delay.
Commercial decision to consolidate flights is within airline control.
Third parties contracted by an airline that directly support obligations set out in the airline's tariffs would generally fall into the "within the airline's control" category. For example, an airline could not argue that a failure by its gate or baggage handling agents to staff adequately is outside the airline's control. However, this does not apply to third parties with whom the airline has no contractual agreement, such as government agencies or airport authorities.
Staff shortages and crew duty time
Generally speaking, flight disruptions resulting from staff issues would be considered within airlines' control, given they have control over those issues, for example hiring, training and dispatching.
The threshold for establishing that a crew shortage is not within the airline’s control is high, and the airline must provide evidence showing that the crew shortage was not the result of its own actions or inactions. Failing this, such flight disruptions are within the carrier's control, meaning that passengers have the right to all associated entitlements, including compensation for inconvenience.
When categorizing a flight disruption caused by a crew shortage, all circumstances surrounding the shortage must be considered, including:
- If there was an event affecting the flight that caused the crew shortage, for example, a weather-related delay or an illness, and whether or not that event was within the airline's control, within its control but required for safety or outside its control; and
- Whether the airline had prepared and followed reasonable contingency plans to replace the crew.
More information on the evidence that airlines may have to provide to the CTA if a there is a complaint related to a crew shortage can be found in the Annex A: Evidentiary requirement for airlines for complaints relating to crew shortages.
It is recognized that aircraft are used in heavy rotation, and may, upon reaching their destination, be swiftly turned around for a return or onward flight. For example, if a flight is significantly delayed, this may directly affect the return or onward flight for which that aircraft must also be used, as a result of the "knock-on effect".
If a flight disruption is caused by events outside the airline's control or for safety reasons, the "knock-on effect" on subsequent flights – for example, flights using that aircraft or staff on that aircraft – would also be considered outside the airline's control or for safety reasons, provided the airline took all reasonable measures to prevent or minimize the "knock-on effects". For example, an airline would be expected to arrange for an alternative aircraft or substitute staff to prevent the knock-on flight disruptions, if possible.
Failure to do so could result in the subsequent flight delays being considered within the airline's control. In determining whether an airline took all reasonable measures to prevent or minimize "knock-on effects", the circumstances surrounding the knock-on effect must be considered, including the following factors should be considered, among others:
Duration of the knock-on effects
How quickly an airline can recover from a disruption and its knock-on effect would depend on the particular circumstances. Some knock-on effects may just impact the next flight meant to use the aircraft or crew, but in other situations, the knock-on effect may affect later flights as well. However, for these longer knock-on effects, airlines will be expected to provide reliable evidence to show that the airline took all reasonable measures to minimize the impacts.
The location and the availability of another aircraft or crew
Location impacts an airline's ability to prevent or minimize the impacts of knock-on effects. Airlines are not expected to have replacement aircraft and crew available at all airports. As noted above, there would be a higher expectation that the airline have replacement aircraft and crew at busy airports and hubs, and it is understood that airlines may have more trouble bringing in replacements where they have more limited operations (for example, remote or foreign locations).
How significant the impact of the flight disruption is
Airlines are expected to recover more quickly from the knock-on effects of a disruption affecting a single flight (for example, a mechanical malfunction), compared to an event with broader impacts on multiple flights. For example:
- Significant weather delays;
- A major health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic;
- War or political instability;
- An accident at an airport, or other airport operations issues; and
- Major network outages or systems failures outside the carrier’s control.
Some flight cancellations or delays may impact multiple flights, depending on how frequently the aircraft is scheduled to fly.
Computer issue or network outages
Airlines are responsible for their own computer systems and networks and those of certain third parties, such as contractors. Because computer issues and network outages are part of day-to-day operations, airlines are expected to anticipate and plan for them, including taking reasonable cybersecurity precautions.
Categorizing a flight disruption caused by a computer issue or network outage will depend on the surrounding circumstances, including the following factors, among others:
- Does the airline control the system? Airlines have control over their own systems and could be considered to have control over the systems of third parties that they do business with (for example, an online reservation system operated by an IT contractor). However, the airlines may have limited control over the networks of other third parties, such as airports.
- If the airline has control, were reasonable steps taken to prevent the issue? The system must be properly maintained and reasonable cybersecurity precautions must be taken.
- Did the airline follow contingency plans? In the event of a computer or network issue, airlines are expected to follow reasonable contingency plans to respond to the event. This could include putting in place alternative processes (like more staff to help over the phone and in person), or taking steps to repair the issue or restart the network.
- Was the issue caused by a cyberattack ? Cyberattacks are illegal acts and are considered outside the airline's control. But even in the event of a cyberattack, airlines would be expected to have taken measures to prevent the issue and to have followed contingency plans as noted above.
Annex A: Evidentiary requirement for airlines for complaints relating to crew shortages
In the context of air travel complaints filed with the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) that relate to flight disruptions, the CTA expects airlines to prove their narrative. An airline that claims that a disruption was within their control but required for safety purposes or outside their control has the responsibility to provide evidence to support that claim. Failing to do so may result in the CTA making a finding that the disruption was within the control of the airline when deciding if the passenger received what they are entitled to under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations and the airline's tariff.
When the reason given by the airline for a flight disruption is a crew shortage, the airline may be required to provide evidence to support its claim that the disruption was not within its control. This could include, but is not limited to:
- Documentation confirming the reason why the crew originally assigned to the flight could not fly – for example:
- crew absentee records such as attendance or sick logs;
- crew duty time logs which show an expiration of the prescribed number of hours that crew members were allowed to work for safety purposes;
- incident logs or other records regarding crew-related inability to report for duty or unavailability for specific assigned flights. These records should provide details about the incident or a description of the circumstances and reasons why crew were unable or unavailable to work, including for what length of time. For example, in the event that crew were stranded at another location due to a weather event or a mechanical malfunction, the records provided should document the cause of any resulting flight disruption, whether any crew members exceeded the length of time that they were allowed to work, and the length of time that they were subsequently off duty and/or remained stranded.
- Contingency plans prepared by the airline to address crew shortages which outline the measures that the airline would take to address the following:
- situations that may cause crew absences or shortages that are part of day-to-day operations (for example, labour disruptions, meteorological and environmental conditions, computer issues and network outages, epidemics or medical emergencies, domestic versus international operating conditions);
- size of the crew workforce the airline has available at its disposal in relation to the scope of its operations at the affected location;
- availability and number of reserve crews and procedures for dispatching crews;
- recovery plans in respect of potential crew shortages.
- Reports confirming the efforts taken by the airline to find replacement crew and the reasons why they were not successful, despite implementing contingency planning measures – for example:
- evidence that reserve crews were depleted;
- any information about unexpected or unplanned changes to the airline's workforce which may have impacted the availability of replacement crew.
Annex B: 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,
(b) respecting the carrier’s obligations in the case of flight delay, flight cancellation or denial of boarding,
(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, and
(iv) the carrier’s obligation to provide timely information and assistance to passengers.
Air Passenger Protection Regulations
Definitions — Part II of Act
1 (1) The following definitions apply in Part II of the Act.
mechanical malfunction means a mechanical problem that reduces the safety of passengers but does not include a problem that is identified further to scheduled maintenance undertaken in compliance with legal requirements. (défaillance mécanique)
required for safety purposes means required by law in order to reduce risk to passenger safety and includes required by safety decisions made within the authority of the pilot of the aircraft or any decision made in accordance with a safety management system as defined in subsection 101.01(1) of the Canadian Aviation Regulations but does not include scheduled maintenance in compliance with legal requirements. (nécessaire par souci de sécurité)
Obligations — situations outside carrier’s control
10 (1) This section applies to a carrier when there is delay, cancellation or denial of boarding due to situations outside the carrier’s control, including but not limited to the following:
(a) war or political instability;
(b) illegal acts or sabotage;
(c) meteorological conditions or natural disasters that make the safe operation of the aircraft impossible;
(d) instructions from air traffic control;
(e) a NOTAM, as defined in subsection 101.01(1) of the Canadian Aviation Regulations;
(f) a security threat;
(g) airport operation issues;
(h) a medical emergency;
(i) a collision with wildlife;
(j) a labour disruption within the carrier or within an essential service provider such as an airport or an air navigation service provider;
(k) a manufacturing defect in an aircraft that reduces the safety of passengers and that was identified by the manufacturer of the aircraft concerned, or by a competent authority; and
(l) an order or instruction from an official of a state or a law enforcement agency or from a person responsible for airport security.
Regulations Amending the Air Passenger Protection Regulations
Delay or cancellation — outside carrier’s control
18 (1) If paragraph 10(3)(b) or (c) applies to a carrier, it must provide to the passenger, free of charge, a confirmed reservation for the next available flight that is operated by the original carrier, or a carrier with which the original carrier has a commercial agreement, is travelling on any reasonable air route from the airport at which the passenger is located to the destination that is indicated on the passenger’s original ticket and departs within 48 hours of the departure time that is indicated on that ticket.
(1.1) If a carrier cannot provide a confirmed reservation in accordance with subsection (1), it must, at the passenger’s choice, refund any unused portion of the ticket or provide the following alternate travel arrangements, free of charge:
(a) in the case of a large carrier, a confirmed reservation for the next available flight that is operated by any carrier and is travelling on any reasonable air route from the airport at which the passenger is located, or another airport that is within a reasonable distance of that airport, to the destination that is indicated on the passenger’s original ticket and, if the new departure is from an airport other than the one at which the passenger is located, transportation to that other airport; or
(b) in the case of a small carrier, a confirmed reservation for the next available flight that is operated by the original carrier, or a carrier with which the original carrier has a commercial agreement, and is travelling on any reasonable air route from the airport at which the passenger is located to the destination that is indicated on the passenger’s original ticket.
Return to point of origin
(1.2) However, if a passenger who chooses to be refunded is no longer at the point of origin that is indicated on the original ticket and the travel no longer serves a purpose because of the delay or cancellation, the carrier must refund the ticket and provide to the passenger, free of charge, a confirmed reservation for a flight to that point of origin that accommodates the passenger’s travel needs.
(1.3) A passenger who is eligible to be refunded under subsection (1.1) may choose a refund at any time prior to being provided with a confirmed reservation.
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.