Inside Politics

FLASHBACK: Pierre Poilievre vs. An air passenger bill of rights

On the eve of what is widely rumoured to be an aggressively pro-consumer Speech from the Throne, here's a collective memory refresher on what then-parliamentary secretary for transport Pierre Poilievre had to say earlier this year in response to the most recent NDP-backed bid to set up a bill of rights for air passengers.   

Spoiler alert: It's fair to say he wasn't keen on the idea, noting, as he did, to his colleagues, "I think we can all agree that we have a system that works."

Of course, we don't yet know for sure whether tomorrow's speech will include a full 180 degree reversal by the government on the issue of air passengers' rights. 

If it does, however, Poilievre may find himself in the awkward position of having his words quoted right back at him, particularly by aggrieved New Democrats who will point out, entirely accurately, that if the government had supported any one of the multiple private members' initiatives on that front that the New Democrats have put forward in recent years, Canadian air passengers would likely already be protected by a bill of rights. 

In any case, here's the full speech:

It has been my purpose in politics in my own small way to help expand free choice so people can earn success, take responsibility for their lives and enjoy the maximum spectrum of choice they can possibly enjoy.

That ideal of free enterprise, free exchange, has delivered humanity the most unprecedented buildup in prosperity in all of known history. That can only happen when we limit government to doing the things that people cannot do for themselves, which brings us to the question before the House today, and the overall airline industry and its service to customers.

What we see when we look at this industry is that the vast increase in choice and quality of service the industry has experienced is the result of decisions by governments over the last 25 years to allow free enterprise competition to lead the way. We have commercialized our airports, we have privatized areas that were formerly government controlled and we have given consumers the tools to make decisions for themselves.

The advent of the Internet has allowed consumers to compare prices and make purchase decisions in a way that was not even imagined 15 or 20 years ago. The power of a traveller to go online and investigate all of the pricing options and review the service of all of the other passengers who have written public reviews is a far greater power for that customer than anything we in this chamber could impose upon the industry or upon the customers.

Our role then is to continue to empower the customer to enjoy maximum service, so how are we doing that?

First, we are signing agreements with countries around the world to allow their carriers to compete for Canadian customers and our carriers to compete for their customers. This gives Canadian business a world of customers and Canadians customers a world of choice. The best thing we can do to enhance the service and treatment of customers who use airlines for transportation is to give them more choice and more competition.

Second, we are giving them more information. Our government instituted the "what you see is what you get" pricing system, wherein an airline has to advertise the real price of the ticket, not just the base price. That avoids the situation of a customer, a passenger purchasing a flight and then learning that it is far more expensive than the advertised rate that was offered.

When the passenger gets on the flight and has an unfortunate experience, the greatest penalty to the sector is the devastating effect of word-of-mouth criticism by the passenger, because other people will refuse to take the same airline if they hear enough anecdotal evidence of bad treatment. Therefore, it is already in the interest of airlines to provide the best quality service they can, or risk losing out to competition. Because of new competition from airline carriers like WestJet and now Porter and others, Air Canada has to work extra hard to retain its passenger base.

At the same time, we monitor the kinds of complaints that come from the sector. In 2011-12 the Canadian Transportation Agency received a total of 518 air travel complaints, 499 for informal facilitation and 19 for formal adjudication, not including an additional 77 complaints that had not been resolved in the previous year.

Let us put this in perspective. We are talking about 518 complaints out of 78.4 million passenger flights travelled. Clearly, the passenger understands that the airline industry has to respond to them, or the passenger can seek another carrier for the services sought. However, that brings about debate here in this House of Commons on this and so many other issues.

On this side of the House, we believe in maximum choice and competition. We believe in empowering customers. The NDP believes in empowering bureaucracy. We believe in allowing business to run business. The NDP wants to run everyone else's business. The NDP believes in nationalizing whole sections of the Canadian economy and has opposed privatization of enterprises that the vast majority of Canadians believe the government has no business running. It is with that mentality that the NDP comes forward with Bill C-459.

I will share more statistics. Of the 365 air travel disputes addressed through the Canadian Transportation Agency's informal resolution process, 293 were settled through facilitation. With respect to the formal process in the same period, 13 air travel disputes were resolved through adjudication. Again, that is out of 78 million passenger flights.

I think we can all agree that we have a system that works. The data clearly demonstrates that the agency performs a useful task and a constructive function when it comes to responding to the few customer complaints in the airline sector, without onerous regulations or court action. The compensation afforded to passengers for various infractions identified in the bill would supercede a function that is already performed by the existing agency.

One layer of government is never enough for the NDP members. They always want layer upon layer. They want an apartment building of layers of bureaucratic regulation and duplication to address every problem, real or perceived.

Given that the bill is largely silent with respect to how customers would obtain the monetary compensation laid out in the bill, disputes could be channelled to the courts, which would be an additional burden on all parties. Therefore, where we have a simplified, streamlined system that allows customers to address their legitimate concerns within the system in a timely fashion and at limited cost to Canadian taxpayers, the NDP would force customers into the courthouses, enriching lawyers at the expense of both the passenger and the business.

That is not the solution. At least, that is not the Canadian way. In fact, it seems a lot more like a litigious American approach to a problem that is otherwise resolved through commercial competition and dispute mediation.

The danger of the bill is that it might place an important additional regulatory burden on air carriers that would render them unable to compete with their international peers. While the bill recognizes that the carrier should not be held responsible for cancellations due to weather or other extraordinary circumstances or incidents that are caused by other parties, the burden of proof would remain on the carrier. That would mean more cost for the carrier. What do carriers have to do when they face increased costs? They have to pass them on to the passengers. The very people the NDP purports to be helping would be paying the price.

I would also note that the biggest variable cost to our air carriers is fuel. What would drive up the cost of fuel more than anything? It would be a carbon tax. There would be taxes, regulation, bureaucracy and the command and control and big government. On this side, we reject those ideas in favour of more freedom and more choice.

The bill in question was voted down by the Conservative majority a few weeks later.  

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