Transport minister looking at ways to ease air travellers' frustrations

The federal government is looking at more robust protections for airline travellers to enhance a regime one consumer advocate says has left passengers with "no decent protections at all."

'We have no decent protections at all,' consumer advocate says of airline travel

The federal government is considering ways to bolster protections for airline passengers. (Canadian Press)

The federal government is looking at more robust protections for airline travellers to enhance a regime one consumer advocate says has left passengers with "no decent protections at all."

Transport Minister Marc Garneau, having just completed a series of cross-country consultations on a range of transportation issues, heard a barrage of complaints ranging from nuisance security measures to cramped cabins to overbooking on flights.

His spokesman, Marc Roy, said the lack of passenger protections was a recurring theme.

"There is great concern," he said. "It's an issue that has been raised from coast to coast to coast."

Stories abound about airline passengers frustrated by poor service, including the recent case of a 15-year-old boy who ended up sleeping overnight on the floor at Toronto's Pearson International Airport after he was bumped from an Air Canada flight and provided a $10 food voucher.

Among the regulatory or legislative changes under consideration is a possible passengers' bill of rights.

Roy said two of the minister's eight roundtables were focused specifically on traveller experiences, offering stakeholders and individuals a chance to share thoughts on stressors for passengers with special needs, dementia or children in tow.

'Tangible policy' 

Participants also called for more transparency for fees and more competition to reduce fares.

"We are assimilating all of that with the goal of bringing forward tangible policy that affects the concerns we have heard, with propositions that we have heard, that have been suggested by individuals and associations and in the reports," Roy said.

Advocacy group Consumers' Association of Canada has been pushing for a passengers' bill of rights for years to hold the industry to account.

President Bruce Cran said there are few avenues of recourse for inconvenienced travellers when their baggage is lost or they're bumped from a flight.

"We have no decent protections at all. We're in the hands of the various airlines, whatever they volunteer to provide," he said. "We need the type of protection that is mandatory so that people who travel know their rights." 

Canada falls behind Europe, U.S.

While Europe and the U.S. have adopted stronger protections, Cran said Canada has fallen behind. The Air Travel Complaints Commissioner's office was shut down in 2007, moving the job of tracking, evaluating, mediating and adjudicating complaints to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA).

"We're right at the bottom, we're down there with Third World countries because we have no mandated protections — it's what the airlines decide to give us," he said. "I'm not saying they're breaking the rules, I'm saying there are no rules to protect consumers in this regard."

In the U.S., for example, the Department of Transportation has a range of passenger protections legally requiring airlines to compensate for lost bags or delayed or cancelled flights, and imposing penalties for extended time on the tarmac. Passengers inconvenienced with short delays of one to two hours are entitled to compensation that is double the ticket price, while those with extended delays of four hours or more receive payments four times the value of their ticket.

Transport Canada is currently reviewing the Transportation Act and the CTA is conducting a modernization initiative to ensure regulations keep pace with business models, user expectations and best practices. The agency now handles the informal complaints process as well as the formal resolution process to respond to air travel complaints.

"Currently, the agency's mandate does not empower it to act on systemic issues and trends," said CTA spokeswoman Martine Maltais in an email. "The agency acts upon complaints and they are treated on a case-by-case basis."

The most recent report on statistics on travel complaints in the "facilitation" process shows the majority of issues were around flight disruptions. In the 2014-2015 period, there were 635 complaints about cancellations or delays, up from 568 the year before and more than triple the 281 complaints the year before that.

Most complaints lodged with the Canadian Transportation Agency are related to flight disruptions. In the most recent 2014-15 report, there were 635 complaints about delayed or cancelled flights, up from 281 two years ago.

Complaints about baggage were also on the rise, while complaints around fares waned.

Fred Lazar, an airline industry expert at York University's Schulich School of Business, agrees that Canada has fallen behind other countries in passenger protections, and called for strict laws, stiffer penalties and required compensation when airlines fail to deliver adequate service.

Calls for penalties

"Unless airlines face huge penalties, it's business as usual," he said. "They deal with it on an ad-hoc measure because it's easier and cheaper to do so than to look at the problem seriously, solve it, and pay compensation to people who are seriously inconvenienced."

He believes passengers should not be required to go through the frustrating hassle of a complex and exhaustive complaints process through the airline and then the CTA.

"You need clear-cut annunciation of the conditions under which an airline is liable and an automatic penalty," Lazar said. "So there are no negotiations, no arbitration, no need for legal actions. The airlines are responsible, period."


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