After Air Transat saga, passenger bill of rights aims to punish airlines into being good

A new air passenger bill of rights would punish airlines for keeping people on the tarmac longer than three hours, forcing them to compensate passengers. But it would not compel carriers to disembark a plane delayed for long periods.

'We're going to make sure that it's not worth your while ... to treat people this way'

Karen McCrimmon, parliamentary secretary to the transport minister, says the proposed passenger bill of rights wouldn't allow authorities to intervene and compel an airline to disembark passengers. But it will punish them for keeping people on the tarmac for longer than three hours. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

A new air passenger bill of rights would punish airlines for keeping people on the tarmac longer than three hours, forcing them to compensate passengers. But it would not compel carriers to disembark a plane delayed for long periods.

The bill is being crafted to instead deter airlines from treating people poorly by imposing strict punishments, according to Karen McCrimmon, parliamentary secretary to Transport Minister Marc Garneau.

Her remarks come a day after an Air Transat flight from Brussels was kept on the tarmac for six hours, before an exasperated passenger finally called 911.

The flight had been scheduled to arrive in Montreal but was diverted to Ottawa because of bad weather. Passengers spent a total of about 15 hours aboard the plane.

Crews surround an Air Transat flight that sat for hours at the Ottawa airport on Monday night. (Stephane Beaudoin/CBC)

"I don't think it will give the actual power for anybody to intervene in this situation, in that piece of legislation," McCrimmon said. "We're going to make sure that it's not worth your while … to treat people this way."

But the NDP's industry critic, Brian Masse, notes that while "significant penalties" are important, the regulations should also include "allowing travellers to disembark and regular airport crew checks."

The Commons transport committee voted in June to return a week before Parliament resumes to study the passenger bill of rights, Bill C-49, and give it an early push, McCrimmon said.

That committee usually only sits four hours a week, she said, but by returning early, it can sit longer and get two months of work done in about four days.

Garneau introduced Bill C-49 in May, with hope of having a passenger-protection regime in place by 2018. The bill would set standards across the country for how air passengers are treated in situations within an airline's control.

The moves are part of a larger package of changes Garneau introduced to modernize Canada's transportation laws to make them more efficient.

Similar legislation has been in place in the U.S. since 2002 and in Europe since 2005.

A difficult situation

McCrimmon's office issued a statement Tuesday, saying she could "imagine how difficult the situation must have been, especially after a long transatlantic flight."

The statement also said the new bill would "clarify the responsibilities of air carriers and the rights of travellers, and move to create rules to strengthen air passenger rights."

But opposition MPs on the transport committee studying the bill are not so sure.

Conservative MP Kelly Block dismissed the power of the bill, saying all it does is give the Canadian Transportation Agency the ability to set regulations regarding air travel at a later date. 

"Passing the Liberals' omnibus transportation bill, C-49, will not create an air passenger bill of rights. Further, C-49 will do nothing to immediately help passengers," Block said in an email to CBC News. 

After almost two years in office, the Liberal government needs to get serious about delivering the legislation, added NDP transport critic and committee member Robert Aubin.

"It's time for the government to act instead of just lamenting these awful situations after they occur," he wrote in an email. "The NDP has introduced legislation that includes a clear set of protections for airline passengers and there's no excuse for more delays."

Disagreeing over the cause for delay

In a situation like what happened in Ottawa, where the airline is giving one reason for the delay and the airport authority is giving another, McCrimmon said resolution can be difficult. 

Air Transat issued a statement saying "nearly 30" planes were diverted to Ottawa Monday night, creating a host of "exceptional " congestion issues that resulted in the tarmac delay.

"Ottawa airport staff were unable to provide [us] with loading bridges or stairs that would have enabled the passengers on the Brussels flight to disembark or our ground crews to replenish the aircraft's empty drinking water reservoir," the statement said.

"The delays that affected our passengers yesterday were caused mainly by congestion on the ramp at Ottawa airport, as well as by delays in refuelling our aircraft."

But the Ottawa International Airport Authority disputed that explanation, saying closer to 20 planes were diverted and all other planes were refuelled and on their way within three hours, most within the first hour or two.

Airline was 'non-communicative'

Krista Kealey, a spokesperson for the authority, said stairs were made available to the airline shortly after it landed, but Air Transat did not request to have its passengers disembark.

"We don't own the air stairs; the carriers own them. But we verified with the ground-handler that they had stairs available," she said.

Not only were stairs available, Kealey said, but there was also plenty of fuel for the additional 20 aircraft. And although there was a wait to refuel, all of the other planes managed to tank up and fly out in short order.

She also said the airport does not make decisions about when passengers leave a plane; the airline does. Nor does the airport know the conditions being experienced by passengers unless informed by the airline.

"We need to know that they need our assistance," Kealey told CBC News in an interview. "We need to know what their situation is. We didn't in this case."

The airport authority issued a statement Tuesday saying staff tried several times to contact Air Transat's aircrew through their representatives on the ground, offering to provide further assistance.

But, it said, "the aircrew was non-communicative and did not take us up on our offers."


Peter Zimonjic

Senior writer

Peter Zimonjic is a senior writer for CBC News. He has worked as a reporter and columnist in London, England, for the Daily Mail, Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph and in Canada for Sun Media and the Ottawa Citizen. He is the author of Into The Darkness: An Account of 7/7, published by Random House.