Transport Minister Marc Garneau pushed back Thursday 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.
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"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."
Garneau also urged the committee to quickly pass the legislation, known as Bill C-49, in order 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.
"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.
That 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 that it shouldn't be held liable for a much-publicized incident where two of its planes faced tarmac delays of more than five hours earlier this summer.
The transportation agency said Thursday that its three-member panel will begin its deliberations in early October with a written decision expected later this fall.
Air Transat officials are scheduled to testify later Thursday in front of the Commons committee, which is holding week-long hearings on C-49.
Rules to be changed as needed
The two Air Transat flights — one from Rome, the other from Brussels — sat on the tarmac for almost five and six hours, respectively, with 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 soon led to mounting tensions, a child throwing up on board one of the flights 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."
Garneau acknowledged that there had been several high-profile stories in recent months that prompted the government bill.
Once passed, the bill would require the transportation agency to draft the regulations and submit them to the government for approval.
Garneau said the Liberals never intended to enshrine the bill of rights in legislation, because that would have made it more difficult to make any future changes.
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."