Opinion

Wouldn't it be great if Canadians could actually 'boycott' an airline?: Robyn Urback

A few hundred Air Transat passengers (plus, surely, many more sympathetic observers) are vowing to boycott the airline after being stuck on a plane on an Ottawa tarmac for hours with no water or food and limited information. But with so few other Canadian airlines, where will they go?

Thanks in part to government regulations, Canadians don't have a lot of choice in terms of low-cost airfare

Passengers angry at Air Transat may vow never to fly the airline again — but they may not have much choice. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Canadian consumers will only endure so much atrocious customer service. And then they'll endure it some more. Because, really, what choice do they have?

It goes like this: one day, that extra, inexplicable charge on your wireless bill becomes one extra, inexplicable charge too many. So you finally decide to call and cancel, which means waiting on hold for 45 minutes, listening to someone repeatedly mispronounce your name and being informed you'll have to pay a cancellation fee, which you thought they weren't technically allowed to charge anymore but you're just too defeated and miserable to argue.

So you and other disgruntled customers trudge like lemmings to one of the other two wireless carriers, until your bill again starts inexplicably creeping up. That's when the cancellation exercise begins anew. Eventually, you find yourself back at the first telco, listening to someone explain to "Ms. Yurback" that your bill went up $5 because the promotion that you didn't know you were on had expired.

Flying in Canada

Flying on Canadian airlines involves similar feelings of hopelessness and despair. You will endure precisely one (1) flight on an Air Canada Rouge aircraft before heading to the drugstore for a bottle of Aleve and vowing "never again."

You will try out one of the others: that curiously low fare on a Sunwing flight catches your eye, so you take a gamble, trying to put those stories oftrapped passengers and unconscionably delayed flights out of your mind. You will come to regret it, of course, four hours into a delay, chewing on an airport bagel you purchased with the $15 voucher you received for your trouble. "Never again," you swear, and in the moment, you actually believe it.

A few hundred Air Transat passengers (plus, surely, many more sympathetic observers) are making that pledge now after beingstuck on a plane on an Ottawa tarmac for hours with no water or food and limited information.

Their flight was scheduled to fly from Brussels to Montreal but was diverted to Ottawa due to bad weather. There it sat for six hours, the air conditioning switched off: a child was puking, people started calling 911 and not a soul was allowed to leave — a scene which, I think, would make for the perfect opening for a dystopian novel about a hostage situation in economy class. Call it: Now Boarding: you may not leave your seat until the seatbelt sign is off — or ever.

After spending six hours stuck on the tarmac, Air Transat passenger Laura Mah says airlines and airports should be better prepared to deal with flight delays. 6:27

As news of the incident spread, the airline predictablyblamed the airport, and vice versa. But no matter the culprit, it's a safe bet that those passengers won't be flying with Air Transat again — for a while.

The problem with boycotting an airline in Canada is that there aren't a whole lot of other options. Indeed, in the same way that a disgruntled wireless customer might eventually end up back where he started, these passengers might have no choice but to buy an Air Transat ticket again. 

Consumers are now looking to the government to remedy the issue, which is somewhat ironic considering government intervention has arguably made competition tougher in both spheres. (The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has proven itself impotent at best, an exacerbating force at worst, when it comes to breaking up Canada's telecom oligopoly).

Most developed aviation markets include ultra-low-cost airlines that offer consumers more choices when it comes to how they fly. That's why Americans can hop a flight from L.A. to Houston for $150 round trip, or Europeans can fly from Paris to Milan for a third of that.

But flying from Canada — and especially within Canada — is usually several times more expensive, partially thanks to outdated foreign ownership rules that have largely prohibited ultra-low-cost airlines from setting up shop in Canada.

Cap on foreign ownership

The Canada Transportation Act mandates that foreign ownership of Canadian airlines must not exceed 25 per cent — a barrier that has, until now, all but extinguished efforts to launch low-cost airlines in Canada.

Last year, Transport Minister Marc Garneau finally announced that the cap would be lifted to 49 per cent, though the actual legislation wouldn't come through until 2018. Garneau did grant immediate exemptions to Canada Jetlines Ltd. and Enerjet, two airlines that have long been pushing for the change.

The new cap will be part of Bill C-49, which will also include a long-promised passenger bill of rights, something that will ideally prohibit airlines from keeping hundreds of passengers confined to a hot plane without food or water for six hours. (Who would have thought we'd need to put that in writing!)

Together, these changes could make flying in Canada a little less excruciating (though that's not a guarantee, asDr. David Dao could surely attest), but at the very least it might lead to a few more flying options. Should that be the case, Canadians might, in the future, be able to "boycott" one airline or another and actually mean it. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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