Emails raise questions about regulator’s independence amid COVID-related flight refunds

Newly revealed correspondence between the federal government and the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) at the start of the pandemic is raising questions around the regulator’s independence.

Unredacted emails show senior officials spoke with the agency’s top brass about how airlines could compensate passengers for cancelled trips because of COVID-19.

Section 39 of the CTA’s code of conduct says that “members shall not communicate with political actors or officials of other federal departments and agencies … regarding a matter that is, was, or could be before the agency.”

However, the emails indicate that then transport minister Marc Garneau’s chief of staff spoke with the agency’s chairman and the department’s top bureaucrat in March 2020 about an upcoming CTA statement that airlines could issue flight credits rather than refunds for cancelled trips.

The correspondence also shows a senior civil servant at Transport Canada reached out to the arm’s-length agency to discuss concerns brought up by Air Transat about having to reimburse customers for flights it cancelled.

The CTA’s statement in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic that vouchers, rather than refunds, constitute a “reasonable approach” toward out-of-pocket passengers sparked public backlash and thousands of complaints to the transportation agency.

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