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New bill to protect airline passengers 'useless,' says consumer group

A new federal government bill to protect air passengers' rights should be grounded unless it is drastically improved, say consumer advocates

Passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs calls it 'the air passenger bill with no rights.'

Bill-49 recommendations come from extensive consultation, says a Transport Canada spokeswoman. But critics are disappointed with the final result. (The Associated Press)

Advocates for airline passengers say their optimism about an Air Passenger Bill of Rights, introduced in the House of Commons this week, has nosedived.

"I was horrified when I took at a look at what we don't have [in the bill]," Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers' Association of Canada, told CBC News in a phone interview from Vancouver.

"This bill is nothing more than some sort of sham. There's no detail in there."

'Skeleton without flesh'

Federal Transportation Minister Marc Garneau introduced Bill C-49 legislation which tasks the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) with developing regulations to protect air passenger rights.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"This bill is like a skeleton without flesh. It's absolutely useless as far as we can see," said Cran, whose organization monitors how industries, including airlines, treat consumers. 

The bill fails to lay out compensation amounts for shoddy treatment, including being forcibly bumped due to overbooking, delays while already on board and lost or damaged baggage.

"It doesn't quantify the damages to be paid for any of the problems that could arise," Cran said.

He said he was expecting a comprehensive bill and hoped for an outright ban on overbooking.

"There is no list of penalties for abuse of passengers," he said. "I don't know what they're doing here but there is no [air passenger rights] bill."

Advocates blocked from launching actions

Well-known air passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs, who has challenged airlines and won numerous times, calls the legislation "the air passenger bill with no rights."

Lukacs and Cran are especially concerned about a section of the new legislation which says both domestic and international complaints "may only be filed by a person adversely affected."

That would block the association and Lukacs from taking legal action against an airline or the industry over what they might perceive is a systemic problem.

Now, they must have an individual complainant.

Bruce Cran, president of Consumers' Association of Canada, says the bill falls short of what it was intended to do and even gives the airlines an advantage when dealing with complaints. (CBC)

"This strikes me as an an attempt to shield airlines from complaints and further prevent the public from ensuring their rights," Lukacs said by phone from Budapest.

He told CBC he believes the airlines are unhappy with his successful efforts to ensure their written policies match what is on the law books. The new bill is the reverse of what passengers require, he said.

"This effort of the government to shut the door to the kind of advocacy I have done in the past shows the true colours of what the government is trying to accomplish, which is help the airlines against passengers," he said.

Bill works to protect airlines, critic says

Airlines' accountability will actually be reduced because making a complaint will become too onerous for an individual to take on, he said.

"Until there is a passenger who has an issue and who is willing to go through the whole hassle of complaining to the Canadian Transportation Agency, appeals to the Federal Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada, airlines will get away with disobeying the law, which is my most fundamental complaint about this bill."

Airline bumping is a widespread industry practice. But many passengers question how fair it is to consumers. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Cran said his organization has been working for consumers since 1947, including taking various issues to the Supreme Court of Canada.

"Are they telling us now we can't do that anymore?" he asked.

"It's limiting our rights to practically zero. It limits my organization, what we do for people and we're not going to put up with it."

Transport Canada defends changes

CBC News asked Transport Canada who suggested the change and why it was included in the legislation.

In an email, Transport Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier told CBC News the recommendation came as a result of extensive consultations on the Canada Transportation Act Review.

"In cases where passengers determine that the air carrier in question did not fulfill its obligations under the new regulations, they may seek the advice of someone who would support them in their complaint," she said. "The person providing support, however, must represent the specific issue of a specific passenger."

Airline passenger advocate Gabor Lukacs says Bill-49 contains no passenger rights. (CBC)

Gary Howard, spokesperson for CAA Atlantic who was part of the process to develop the new bill, said he's not concerned about the change and that it is not intended to shut down advocates.

"I think this is more about efficiency than taking out an advocate. I think advocates will continue to play a role and keep an eye on it," he said.

Transportation agency needs to step up enforcement

Howard acknowledged the Canadian Transportation Agency needs to improve its operations and to enforce rules that are already on the books.

The objective with this legislation, he said, is to make sure there are very clear, easily understandable standards that travellers can access.

"This also has to be reasonable to the airlines and the airport authority and so on so that they're not dealing with the same person on four different complaints. That it's the passenger who's actually working on their own behalf," Howard said.

The new airline passengers' bill of rights in Canada would prevent consumer advocates from taking action against airlines for what they perceive to be systemic problems. (CBC)

He said the legislation has a built-in mechanism that allows the minister to make changes at any time he feels it is appropriate. "The devil is in the details. And he urges people to be patient.

"It will be done properly and correctly. I'm confident this is going to be a good regulation in place to protect travellers," he  said.

Canada lags behind 

Cran points out Canada lags behind the United States and Europe in lacking an airline passenger bill of rights.

Europe has one for 20 years and in the United States for the past 10 to 15 years.

"We want the same thing here," he said, adding  no airline has gone broke from adhering to rules that ensure proper treatment of passengers.

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