An air passenger bill of rights awaits takeoff

An air passenger bill of rights that's considered reasonable by the airlines may differ greatly from what the government's proposing and what opposition MPs and consumer advocates have called for.

Tories may include proposal in throne speech

Although the Conservatives have shot down previous attempts to create a airline passenger bill of rights, there are reports that the government may be reconsidering. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

The director of a lobby group representing Canadian airlines says he welcomes any discussions about an airline passenger bill of rights — a proposal rumoured to be announced in the next speech from the throne — as long as it's a reasonable plan. 

"That can take many forms, but there has to be some sort of proportionality, some sort of reasonableness," said Marc-André O'Rourke, the director of the National Airlines Council of Canada.

But what's considered reasonable by the lobby group and the airlines may differ greatly from what the government's proposing and what opposition MPs and consumer advocates have called for in the past. 

The idea of an airline passenger bill of rights follows high-profile stories of passengers stranded for hours in planes on airport runways or passengers bumped from flights because of overbooking. CBC News reported on Monday about a Vancouver Island couple who had their Air Canada flight seats given to other passengers on an overbooked flight, leaving them stranded at the gate and unable to get home to their small children. 

Although the Conservatives have shot down previous attempts to create a passenger bill of rights, the National Post recently reported that the government may be softening its stance as part of a "consumer first" strategy. In an email to CBC News, a spokesman for Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt said they wouldn't "comment on speculation." 

But former Manitoba New Democrat MP Jim Maloway, who in 2009 tried unsuccessfully to pass a airline passengers bill of rights, said he's taking a wait and see approach on what the Tories might offer.

'May have no teeth'

"The air passenger bill of rights that they bring in may have no teeth whatsoever," said Maloway, who now sits as an MLA for the Manitoba legislature. 

"I may be happy with what they bring in or I may be in a position to be able to say 'This is nothing. They really haven't moved the bar.'"

Maloway's bill included set compensation rates for passengers inconvenienced by overbooked flights, cancelled flights and what he deemed as unreasonable flight delays.

For example, his bill proposed that customers delayed on a plane for more than an hour while still on the runway would have been entitled to receive compensation of $500 for each additional hour they were detained.

Travellers would also be offered $500 if they were bumped from flights of 1,500 kilometres or less; $800 for flights between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometres and $1,200 for flights of 3,500 kilometres or more.

Airlines slammed his bill and it was shot down by both the Tories and the Bloc. George Petsikas​, president of the National Airlines Council of Canadians, told CBC News at the time that some of Maloway's proposed penalties were "outlandish" given the economic climate. And in a letter to MPs, he wrote that "the compensation requirements are grossly punitive and do not recognize the cost/revenue environment that air carriers face today."

To counter Maloway's bill, the airlines proposed their own set of rules, known as tariffs. These binding rules included giving passengers meal vouchers if they were delayed for four hours or more and paying passenger accommodations if flights were delayed overnight.

But New Democrat MP Jose Nunez-Melo thought that those rules weren't tough enough and decided to renew the fight, submitting his own proposed passenger bill of rights in 2011.

Nunez-Melo's bill was similar Maloway's and proposed that passengers stranded on the runway for more than an hour should receive electric generation service to provide temporary power for fresh air, heat and lights; waste removal service and adequate food and drinking water and other refreshments.

Passengers would receive $100 for each hour those obligations were not met, according to his proposed bill.

He also proposed overbooking compensation of $250 for those bumped from flights of 1,500 kilometres or less, $400 for all flights between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometres and $600 for flights of 3,500 kilometres or more.

Canada is 'backwards'

Nunez-Melo said that Canada is "backwards" when it comes to rights for passengers and needs get in line with other jurisdictions.

In the U.S, the compensation is as much as $680 of the airfare for delays less than two hours, and as much as $1,360 for delays over two hours. In the European Union, the compensation ranges from $175 to $835, depending on the length of the flight and the delay caused to passengers.

In a speech to Parliament, Pierre Poilievre, then parliamentary secretary to the minister of transportation, noted that there were only 518 complaints out of 78.4 million passenger flights travelled.

Pierre Poilievre argued against an air passenger bill of rights when he was parliamentary secretary to the minister of transportation (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

He argued that the Canadian Transportation Agency's resolution process was adequately dealing with the "few customer complaints." The bill of rights, he said, might force passengers to courts to try to claim their compensation. Also, the bill might place an additional regulatory burden on air carriers, who would pass the costs on to the consumer.

"The very people the NDP purports to be helping would be paying the price," he said.

Although that bill was also defeated, consumer advocates hailed a ruling in May by the Canadian Transportation Agency. The CTA  said Air Canada's compensation for passengers who are bumped off flights due to overbooking — $100 cash or a $200 voucher for future travel within North America —  was unreasonable.  

It ruled that passengers should be compensated $200, $400 or $800 per passenger depending on whether a delay was less than two hours, between two and six hours, or more than six hours.

O'Rourke said a new passenger bill of rights would have the advantage of offering consistency to the industry.

"What's been happening recently has been a patchwork framework because the CTA has issued decisions here and there. That's not good for anybody. it's not good for passengers, it's not good for airlines."


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