Airing grievances

Airline passenger's rights bill on the Ottawa table, again

Don Quixote tilted at windmills and now a Canadian Member of Parliament is aiming his lance directly at the airlines.

New Democratic MP Jim Maloway tabled a Passenger Rights bill in the House of Commons that is designed to protect and compensate travellers when they’re bumped, delayed or cancelled.

There is no question how popular – and even righteous – this idea is.  But, to misquote an old chestnut, there’s many a slip between the airport and the takeoff and even if the bill is passed, passengers may not see many changes.

The European Union has had a similar Passenger Bill of Rights in place since 2004 that includes compensation and rules about delays, bumping and cancellations.  However, there’s a loophole that says airlines are off the hook if the problem is due to extraordinary circumstances that include weather and “unexpected flight safety shortcomings.”

The upshot is that the airlines can blame almost all delays or cancellations on extraordinary circumstances, which of course means little or no compensation for travellers.  Add that to the red tape and bureaucratic process each claim demands and the advantage to customers starts looking less and less realistic or useful.

While some carriers try to skirt the intent, if not the letter of the law, others go beyond what’s required legally.  For example, even in the absence of any legal requirement, WestJet’s policy is to take care of stranded passengers no matter what the delay.  Air Canada decides one flight at a time. Since Air Canada connects to both regional and international networks, and is many times the size of WestJet, you can see why it won’t, or can’t go as far as WestJet. Airlines know that comprehensive compensation laws could routinely cost them millions of dollars, and some will fight to the bitter end before they admit liability.

Though we can understand Air Canada’s position, from the passenger’s perspective it’s hard not to root for WestJet’s philosophy.

Governments, including ours, have tended to give airlines the benefit of the doubt in managing major disruptions effectively and fairly. But over the past few years, several high-profile incidents have propelled the issue of passenger inconvenience into the headlines. Images of passengers literally trapped on freezing cold airlines or stranded on the tarmac without food or water with the lavatories overflowing, have made everyone realize something needs to be done. The reality is that the airlines alone may not be at fault. Airport facilities, security measures and union staffing issues also put a stranglehold on the carrier’s ability to accommodate passengers.

Although airlines have not always managed such situations as effectively as they should, extreme incidents are rare and trying to come up with “one size fits all” inconvenienced-passenger legislation will undoubtedly prove fruitless. Plus, most horror stories are due to serious storm related incidents that would not be covered in the legislation anyway.

Where does that leave Jim Maloway and Canadian passengers?  If you don’t expect miracles Maloway’s bill, on balance, is a good thing.  First, it’s putting the airlines and their treatment of passengers, squarely in the public eye and airlines are more apt to reform their practices when they’re being publicly scrutinized, than when they deal with complaints privately.

We also take our hats off to Maloway for another element of the bill.  He’s trying, yet again, to enforce airlines to advertise the all-in price so consumers know the true cost up front — something Parliament put in place almost two years ago and is still not happening.

As to his chances of passing the bill, they are, unfortunately, rather slim. But airing the debate, so to speak, is half the battle. Leaving angry passengers to duke it out with airlines is not advancing the cause of fair treatment. We need more publicly available data and more transparency on the airline’s part so we have a better idea of what the real problems are and what might be the most useful solutions.

Photo Credit & Illustration: Kapitain