Garneau, airlines face off over proposed air passenger bill of rights

OTTAWA—Transport Minister Marc Garneau pushed back against suggestions the Liberals’ proposed air passenger bill of rights is too heavy-handed with airlines, saying the government’s intent is not to pick on air carriers.
Garneau told a Commons committee studying the proposal that the government’s goal is to create regulations that are fair to airlines and passengers to ensure everyone knows their rights and responsibilities.
The regulations would impose what Garneau described as hefty fines on airlines in situations where a passenger has been bumped from an overbooked flight, had luggage lost or damaged, or was stuck on a tarmac for far too long—but only if these were within the carrier’s control.
If it is something beyond the control of the airline—bad weather, air traffic control issues, or a security threat at an airport, for instance—then the carrier wouldn’t be held liable.
“It is an objective of this to come up with something that clearly addresses passenger rights, but that is also fair to the airlines,” Garneau said. “We’re not here to pick on the airlines. We’re here to make sure that passenger rights are respected.
“If it was a decision that was within the control of the airline that prevented you from taking that flight, there needs to be compensation.”
The ensuing hours of hearings on the legislation, known as Bill C-49, saw warnings from the airline industry that legislating compensation beyond the cost of a ticket and the cost to the passenger’s time would increase prices.
Bad publicity through social media is incentive enough for airlines to better their customer service, said Douglas Lavin, an executive with the International Air Transport Association.
Instead, Lavin and others suggested the government require airlines to be clear with passengers about fare agreements and let the consumer decide what level of service they are willing to pay for.
The line between what is and isn’t in the airline’s control is at the centre of a hearing before the Canadian Transportation Agency in which Air Transat says it shouldn’t be liable for a much-publicized incident where two of its planes faced tarmac delays of more than five hours earlier this summer where passengers not allowed to disembark.
One of the two flights ran out of fuel during the delay and lost power, shutting down the air conditioning.
The ensuing heat led to mounting tensions, a child throwing up on board and—ultimately—a 911 call from a passenger on the Brussels flight.
The transportation agency will release its decision later this fall.
Air Transat executives told the committee that C-49 wouldn’t have made a difference in the situation.
“Putting out an obligation or a penalty or a fine and saying, ‘if you don’t disembark your passengers after certain hours you’re going to pay this amount of money,’ that would not have helped those passengers that evening, I can assure you that, because we don’t need a financial incentive or threat to do what we’re doing,” said George Petsikas, Air Transat’s senior director of government and industry affairs.
“Our crews want to get those people where they’re going as quickly and as safely as possible.”
Once passed, the bill would require the transportation agency to draft the regulations and submit them to the government for approval.
Garneau said that the rules would be changed as needed “under compelling situations” if there are situations that aren’t addressed, or provisions that are found to be “inadequate in any way.”
Garneau urged the committee to quickly pass the legislation to have the new passenger rights in place some time next year.
Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt told Garneau she wanted to ensure the bill is indeed as fair as the government claims, given it also proposes changes to rail transport and foreign ownership rules for Canadian airlines.
“Any time you move off of status quo, which C-49 does do, you’re going to have people who are winners and people who are losers and our attempt here is to try and figure out the best balance is,” said Raitt, a former transport minister.