In an environment where airlines can advertise prices that bear little relation to the actual final fare, where they can fund current operations with the money you paid for a future flight and then fail before you get your chance to fly, and where Transport Canada still does not track critical airline performance like on-time stats and lost-luggage figures, you still have rights!
With the usual fanfare surrounding consumer-friendly announcements just prior to an election call, Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon launched Flight Rights Canada last week. He described the program as “strengthening consumer protection for air travellers.” Gerry Byrne, the Newfoundland Liberal MP who launched the debate over a bill of rights for airline passengers with a private member’s bill, had a different take after reviewing Flight Rights Canada. He called it “trickery” and “a public relations exercise.”
Here’s how Cannon described the program in a press release: “Through Flight Rights Canada, air travellers will be reassured that options are available to them if they are inconvenienced. Consumer protection is important to our government and that’s why we are taking further action. The introduction of Flight Rights Canada will help make sure that air travellers know their rights as consumers, and that obligations of air carriers are reflected in how they provide services.”
Read it carefully, and it suggests there’s not much new. Michael Janigan, Executive Director and General Counsel for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), says that’s because there isn’t anything new.
“My impression is that this is old wine in a new bottle,” he told TakeOffeh. “The program helps to consolidate and increase awareness of complaint procedures, and that’s important, but to promote it as a panacea is misleading. Most of the things you want to complain about are not covered.”
The biggest complaints about the program are that it doesn’t address the real problems impacting Canadian air travellers. Over three years ago in the wake of the Jetsgo failure, a group of more than a dozen travel industry and consumer groups formed a coalition dubbed the Traveller’s Protection Initiative. It offered what it called “six simple solutions,” including greater financial monitoring of airline financial health, protection for advance ticket purchases, full price disclosure in advertising and a federal compensation fund for when airlines fail.
Three years later, and in the wake of the Zoom Airlines failure that left thousands of Canadians stranded and thousands of others with useless tickets, none of the “six simple solutions” have been enacted. As PIAC’s Janigan puts it: “This is not a consumer-friendly environment.”
Here is a list of what is covered by Flight Rights Canada, and what will be promoted in a poster campaign in ‘key’ Canadian airports:
- Passengers have a right to information on flight times and schedule changes. Airlines must make reasonable efforts to inform passengers of delays and schedule changes and the reasons for them.
- Passengers have a right to take the flight they paid for. If the plane is over-booked or cancelled, the airline must find the passenger a seat on another of its flights, buy a seat on another carrier or refund the unused portion of the passenger’s ticket.
- Passengers have a right to punctuality. If a delay exceeds 4 hours, the airline must offer a meal voucher. If the delay is more than 8 hours and involves an overnight stay, the airline will pay for a hotel and transfers for passengers who did not start their travel at that airport. If a delay occurs when the plane is already loaded, the airline is to offer drinks and snacks. If the delay exceeds 90 minutes, the airline should offer passengers the option of disembarking until departure time.
- Passengers have a right to retrieve their luggage quickly. If luggage does not arrive, the airline should deliver luggage to the passenger ASAP. Passengers should be updated on luggage status and given an over-night kit as required.
- If a passenger complaint is not resolved, passengers can contact the Canadian Transportation Agency at 1-888-222-2592 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You should note that if inclement weather or “the acts of third parties” are the causes of cancellations or delays, the above rules do not apply. Most industry observers feel that is fair enough, though some wonder if airlines may stretch the definition of “inclement.”