A 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