Calgary

Passenger bill of rights may let airlines 'off the hook' without an ombudsman: advocate

A consumer advocate is frustrated Canada's proposed new air passenger bill of rights doesn't include plans for an independent body that will review complaints.

An independent arbiter is 'essential,' says consumer rights advocate

The proposed new air passenger bill of rights needs an ombudsperson, says a consumer advocate. (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

A consumer rights advocate is frustrated Canada's proposed new air passenger bill of rights doesn't include plans for an independent body that will review passenger complaints.

Highlights of the proposed new regulations were released earlier this week.

"The most polite thing I could say is that we're disappointed in what is being produced. After all this time — it's been decades in the making — and really it's like a bucket of muddy water," said Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers Association of Canada.

"One of the things we would have liked to have seen, in fact I think it's essential, is some sort of an ombudsman structure so people can put their complaints into an independent arbitrator. There's not much in there for consumers."

The U.S. and Europe have had passenger rights regulations in place for years, and Cran jokes that after this bill is put in place Canadians still won't have them — they'll have an "airline bill of rights" instead.

Right now, airlines set out their own terms and conditions, and if they break their own rules, a person can complain to the Canadian Transportation Agency, an independent tribunal run by the federal government.

Consumer groups have long complained that the CTA does little to enforce the payment of those tariffs, and that most Canadians don't understand airlines' obligations or know how to file a claim.

The new regulations would put more black-and-white rules in place for airlines — for example that passengers must be compensated a set amount in cash for delays, or airlines could face big penalties — but enforcement will still be kicked back to Canadian Transportation Agency staff.

Law 'should protect passengers'

"I think there are a lot of things in there that probably let them off the hook and they'll be decided in the favour of the airlines rather than the airline passengers … it's not a matter of compensating passengers, it's a matter of making it difficult for the airlines to survive if they don't conform to what's supposed to be the law, which again, should protect passengers," Cran said.

The CTA had a complaints commissioner back in the early 2000s, but the position was eventually eliminated and its highly publicized annual reports faded away.

David Western, the former director of tariff enforcement and complaints with the CTA, said he was essentially the commissioner's right-hand-man.

Past commissioners made 'huge difference'

"I think that the [complaints] commissioner made a huge difference in terms of customer service from the airlines," he said.

Western said that when Canadian Airlines and Air Canada amalgamated in 1999, there were thousands of complaints about the level of customer service from Air Canada, but over the two commissioners' terms, service improved enormously.

"We were getting satisfaction on about 75 per cent of the complaints that had not been resolved satisfactorily by the airlines."

The trick, according to Western, was that the commissioner put out an annual written report — and companies really, really didn't want to be profiled in it.

He said one commissioner, an ex-NHL referee, loved to "blow the whistle" on cases where customers hadn't been treated fairly.

"I think that there are advantages to having a readily identifiable spokesperson or an ombudsperson who people can recognize and turn to," he said.

However Ian Jack of the Canadian Automobile Association says Canadians should see how the new bill plays out before worrying about adding another layer of bureaucracy.

Too soon to say

The CAA books about 700,000 trips each year, trips that Jack stresses aren't for business travellers or frequent flyers, who are often taken care of more quickly when there's an issue with a flight.

"It's a brand new regime and I think we have to see how it works until you know before we decide that it's not working," Jack said.

"While the regime that's been proposed by the government is far from perfect … the fact is, this is a solid advance over what we have had, which is a chaotic series of semi-hidden rules that nobody really knew about, where people who flew a lot were treated a lot better than people who didn't."

The CTA says there are currently no plans for an ombudsman, and if facilitation and mediation aren't conclusive, the complaint will then go through an adjudication process.

With files from Jennifer Lee, CBC Politics

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.