Canada 'procrastinating' on improving air passenger rights

An MP who introduced a bill to better protect plane passengers, such as those stuck in a grounded aircraft for over 13 hours in Toronto last week, says Canada has been slow to improve legislation for inconvenienced air travellers.

U.S. more proactive when it comes to air travel regulations

A bill is currently working its way through the Canadian Parliament that would force airlines to be more accountable to passengers during flight delays. (iStock)

An MP who introduced a bill to better protect plane passengers, such as those stuck in a grounded aircraft for over 13 hours in Toronto in early February, says Canada has been slow to improve legislation for inconvenienced air travelers.

José Nunez-Melo, the MP for Laval, Que., suggests that U.S. regulations are far more consumer-friendly. For example, passengers who have been stuck on a grounded U.S. flight for more than 30 minutes after their scheduled departure have the option of getting off.

"I don't know why Canada is procrastinating and why it is the last one that's going to say yes to legislation," said Nunez-Melo, who introduced Bill C-459, which aims to better protect the rights of air passengers and is currently in a second reading in the House of Commons.

Nunez-Melo was responding to questions about a Sunwing Airlines flight that was grounded during a snowstorm at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on Feb. 8, which left 200 passengers trapped on the plane for 13 and a half hours.

The Feb. 8 delay was the result of a series of unfortunate events that included heavy snow, a line-up of planes needing de-icing, a malfunctioning de-icer and a gate where the Sunwing flight was unable to deplane. As a result of remaining idle on the tarmac for so long, the plane eventually had to refuel and the original flight crew had to be relieved.

The plane finally took off with passengers bound for both Panama and Costa Rica, almost 17 hours after its scheduled departure.

Limited snacks

Michelle Mangotich, who had been on the flight, told CBC News that during the 13-and-a-half-hour delay, she and other passengers were offered one granola bar, a bag of corn snacks and, on two separate occasions, water.  

Daryl McWilliams, vice-president of media relations with Sunwing Travel Group, explained that the meals they had on board were frozen, and due to safety regulations, ovens can't be started unless the aircraft is in the air. Since there isn't much room on an aircraft to store food, they had a limited amount of snacks, which went quickly, McWilliams said.

During the delay, passengers were also without on-board entertainment, since another safety regulation is that headsets can't be used while the plane is grounded. McWilliams explained this is so passengers can hear flight announcements.

As compensation, Sunwing gave passengers a $25 food voucher, which complies with existing legislation, and a letter explaining that every person would be given a $150 discount on future trips, which the airline was not required to give.

'Responsible business practices'  

The current legislation on air passenger protection, called Flight Rights Canada, was enacted in 2008, and stipulates that if a flight is delayed for more than four hours, the airline will provide passengers with a meal voucher. If the delay is upwards of eight hours and involves an overnight stay, the airline will pay for a hotel and airport transfers for passengers.  

Nunez-Melo maintains that isn’t enough, and says that improvements need to be made to create conditions more favourable for passengers, which involves air carriers being held more accountable.

"We are trying to make the government of Canada understand that it can no longer remain so isolated and insensitive to responsible business practices," Nunez-Melo said during the Commons debate on Bill C-459 on Feb. 7.

"Customers appreciate being shown respect, and treated fairly and transparently."

Nunez-Melo's bill states that passengers have the right to fresh air, heat, lights, waste removal, sufficient food and refreshments. Also, if possible and safe, passengers should be given the option to disembark.

If passengers are not given fresh air, heat, lights and the right to disembark, the bill proposes every passenger should receive $100 for each hour of waiting.

For a general delay of two or more hours, the bill would force airlines to offer passengers meals, refreshments and communication. If the delay runs into the night, air carriers would be expected to provide accommodation. In the event that the delay reached five hours, the bill would force the carrier to offer passengers a full reimbursement of the flight cost.

Setting compensation levels  

Each carrier is allowed to set its own compensation level for domestic travel, said Kelly James, a spokesperson for Transport Canada, in an email to CBC News. 

She said airlines must prominently display their terms and conditions of carriage. If they do not respect these terms, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) will address travelers complaints on this matter, wrote James.

Chantal Laflamme, a spokesperson for CTA, explained by email that the terms and conditions on an airline's website are a contract between the carrier and the passenger and are enforceable by the CTA.

If a passenger feels an air carrier has not complied with their conditions, or if they believe those terms are unjust or unreasonable, they may register a complaint with the airline.

Sunwing's terms and conditions state: "In the event of a flight delay related to weather, traffic or a 'force majeure' situation, it may not be possible for the airline to provide meals and/or accommodations. Sunwing does not accept responsibility for lost wages, missed holiday time or any other additional expenses incurred as a result of changes in flight times."

Laflamme said no complaints have been filed with CTA by Sunwing passengers on the Feb. 8 flight.

Sunwing's McWilliams confirmed that the company has received one complaint from a passenger who was on that flight, but noted that passengers have not returned to Canada yet.

Stronger regulations in U.S.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) outlines distinct rules for tarmac delays, stipulating a three-hour limit for domestic flights and a four-hour limit for international flights before imposing a hefty fine on the airline.

As well, airlines must make announcements every 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time to let passengers know they can deplane.

There are exceptions to these rules — for instance, if returning to the terminal would jeopardize safety, security or air traffic control.

If planes do go over the three-hour time limit, Bill Mosley, a spokesperson for DOT, said the airline has to file a report with DOT, and then DOT investigates to see if any of the above exceptions apply. If not, DOT issues a penalty that usually involves a fine.

For the first violation under this rule in May 2011, DOT handed out a fine of $900,000 to American Eagle Airlines.

DOT also says that air carriers are required to give adequate food and drinking water within two hours of the aircraft being delayed on the tarmac, as well as usable lavatories.

Airlines are not required to give cash compensation, nor are they expected to give any source of entertainment during the delay, according to Mosley.