Canadian air travellers' bill of rights - Macleans.ca
 

Canadian air travellers’ bill of rights

Pros & Cons


 

Take off eh.comA growing disenchantment with many airlines has pushed a private member’s Bill of Rights for air passengers before parliament. Incidents such as shoddy service, lost baggage, denied boarding, flight delays and questionable pricing practices have created a backlash of consumer dissatisfaction which the federal NDP opposition is leveraging.

The tipping point for all the furor came in March 2008 when two Cubana Airlines flights were diverted to Ottawa during a snowstorm. The combination of the snow, lightning and Cubana having no relationship with local handling companies meant that the 300 passengers sat within eyesight of the gate for 12 hours with little food or water and backed-up toilets. A similar incident with Northwest took place at its main Detroit hub in 1999. According to Northwest, even their aircraft handlers were stuck in the storm and the airport was operating on a skeleton staff.

Although these events have left consumers feeling vulnerable and a call for protection standards is not unreasonable, the proposed Bill fails to recognize some important realities of airline safety, operations and finances.

The present private member’s Bill was introduced in February 2009 by Jim Maloway (NDP) and it attempts to standardize penalties and compensation. It’s back in the news this month as the airlines argue against its stringent penalties.

On the surface, the Bill seems like a commendable and logical initiative. However, before exacting revenge on airlines that are not performing up to our expectations, we need to dig a little deeper because there could be some nasty unintended consequences if the Bill passes in its present format.

Some of the highlights of the Bill call for:

  • penalties of up to $1200 for bumping passengers with confirmed seats
  • payment of $500 to every passenger on an aircraft stranded on the tarmac for more than one hour
  • re-imbursement of fare in case flights are delayed by more than 5 hours – excluding weather related delays
  • re-imbursement or re-routing in the case of flight cancellation

So, if a plane of 250 passengers is backed up on the runway waiting for clearance for more than one hour, the airline would be penalized $150,000 in compensation fees. On key routes during peak flying times, this could amount to millions every month – despite the fact that carriers have no control over such events. Traffic control, air congestion, airport scheduling, and third party handlers direct the safety of take-off and landing sequences.

In light of the hefty proposed penalties, the airlines have banded together and formed the National Airlines Council of Canada. The council is vehemently opposed to the Bill in its present format. Brigitte Hebert, director of the Council, told members of the Commons transport committee that the Bill is about “penalties not passengers and positions convenience above safety.” In effect, the “severe” penalties will have the unintended consequence of increasing fares and reducing service on many routes. Hebert also argues that the “most egregious flaw of the Bill is it discourages and will outright penalize airlines for ensuring the safe operation of the plane – imposing substantial liability on carriers when flights are cancelled or delayed for safety reasons.”

Airlines would also need to hire more staff and have more planes on standby in case of mechanical problems. From a service perspective, this would seem like a desirable outcome. But in effect it will mean higher fares in order to cover the increased costs.

Yes, there needs to be Bill of Rights but it needs to be carefully crafted and must be fair and reasonable.

The Bill in its present format is unlikely to be passed. It is a good starting point but over-penalizing the airlines could have repercussions that we could all ultimately pay for. Consumers do need to be compensated for problems that are within the control of the carrier and there does need to be some standardization so that we all know upfront what we are entitled to. If the airlines had done the right thing in the past there would be no need for this Bill. The genie is now out of the bottle, however, so let’s hope what we finally get is workable and fair to all parties otherwise nobody will win!

Photo Credits: starfotograf, fotohorst


 
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Canadian air travellers’ bill of rights

  1. Airlines could be fined for lost or damaged baggage. This is a crock. Like when you shipped something via postal services, courier, grey hound, frieght, express companies. Do you not have an option to purchase insurance for your parcel whatever. Then if you don't your just out of luck. Why a difference in the airline industry. Is this to another double standard in our society. If we take a vehicle in for service or rent a vehicle also the same. Then the airlines should have an option to sell insurance to protect the customer and themselves. Like everything else I would imagine ther are many frudulent claims.

  2. We do not need a Passenger's Bill of Rights. Airlines are free to bump passengers, reschedule flights, and provide shoddy service. Passengers are free to take our business elsewhere.

    What is needed is the recognition that passengers have rights as citizens: specifically a right not to be held against their will. Cases such as the Cubana incident should be dealt with as follows: any passenger who chooses to leave the aircraft is free to do so (provided their departure doesn't endanger the other passengers), but forfeits their ticket. If the crew impedes a passenger from exiting the aircraft without a valid safety reason, they should be charged with false imprisonment.

    More legislation is exactly the wrong approach. Recognition and protection of citizens' basic rights is all that is required.

    • I can't imagine it's just that easy to allow people to leave the aircraft if they want to.

      The crew don't want to keep you hostage, but if there is no gate to have, should passengers be allowed off the plane to wander around on the ramp as they see fit? And how would they get off the plane, by deploying the emergency chutes?

      It's the inefficient way the airports are run that is the problem. Look at Toronto, the Minister of Transport along with a Senator prove that the airport is not secure and the knee jerk reaction of the "board" is to penalize the RCMP.

      In a snowstorm, if Vancouver doesn't have enough snow removal equipment to keep up and the back log begins, should the airlines be made to pay for the inefficiencies of the airport or the freak attack by mother nature?

      According to this bill of rights…yes, it's always the airlines fault.

      • In answer to your questions: yes, and yes.

        Airlines do not have the right to imprison people, any more than you or I do. The only possible caveat is if letting them leave the plane affects the safety of others (i.e. in midair or while the plane is taxiing). Beyond that, the airline can sue if there's a great nuisance involved, but passengers are free citizens. They can't be held if they don't want to be.

    • Why would people have to forfeit their ticket for leaving the plane? You're stranded for 12 hours, you want to get up and walk around in the terminal, but you won't be allowed back on the plane for that? That's not right.

      The false imprisonment charge is a good idea.

  3. Dan™

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