The NDP transport critic is calling out proposed changes to air passenger protections as the transportation minister defends the government’s approach to making air travel fairer for passengers.
The government tabled a range of amendments to the Canada Transportation Act last week. They include a tenfold increase in the maximum fine an airline can face for violations — from $25,000 to $250,000.
The amendments also would make compensation for airline passengers for flight disruptions mandatory, though there will be a range of exceptions the government hasn’t announced yet. The amendments are part of the government’s budget bill.
The proposed changes came after tens of thousands of passengers filed complaints about the spring and holiday travel seasons last year. In response to the outrage, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra promised changes to the government’s passenger bill of rights, which came into effect in 2019.
Critics had said the protections were not effective. The Canada Transportation Agency (CTA), the quasi-judicial body responsible for adjudicating issues related to air travel. Alghabra said last month that the number of pending complaints is over 40,000.
NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach said Monday the government’s proposed reforms are unlikely to make travel easier for passengers, and criticized the government for not adopting the European Union’s air passenger protection rules.
“The Liberals have chosen to double down on an approach that’s complex, bureaucratic and expensive,” Bachrach told a news conference.
“As a result, we’re not confident that it’s going to be a significant improvement and that we’re going to see measured progress in terms of protecting air passengers in Canada.”
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The European Union’s air passenger rights regime entitles passengers to either automatic financial compensation or a rebooked flight if a flight is delayed and cancelled, with only a small number of exceptions for airlines.
In a report released last week, the House of Commons standing committee on transport, infrastructure and communities made 21 recommendations to strengthen air passenger protections in Canada. Among them were a recommendation to establish a passenger right to direct financial compensation from airlines and a recommendation to make the complaints process simpler.
Bachrach said the government chose not to adopt the committee’s recommendations or to listen to advice from consumer advocacy organizations.
“They’ve put us in a position where we’re likely to see more air passengers sleeping on airport floors and out thousands of dollars because of the behaviour of Canada’s airlines,” he said.
“It’s really unclear why the Liberals have ignored the example that has worked so well in Europe for over a decade.”
Bachrach said he worries that airlines will deny passengers compensation even for situations that are within an airline’s control. He added that even the passengers who do go through the complaints process don’t always see compensation.
Though he welcomed the increase in fines, he said he’s not confident they’ll motivate airlines to improve their service.
“So far, we haven’t seen fines used as an effective tool,” Bachrach said.
Conservative transport critic Mark Strahl also blasted the proposed changes, saying Canada’s federal transportation system is “an international embarrassment.”
“During the holiday season, families were left stranded for days sleeping on floors at airports and rail stations across the country. Now, 45,000 Canadians are stuck in an 18-month long line just to have their complaints heard by Trudeau’s government,” Strahl said in a media statement.
“The nightmare of our transportation system is only furthering under this Liberal government’s watch and this latest announcement will do nothing to change that.”
Minister says changes will improve air travel
In a news conference Monday, Alghabra said he’s confident the proposed reforms will make air travel less frustrating for passengers.
“I would argue that this new proposal is tougher than the EU, and I would argue that it is tougher than the United States,” he said.
Alghabra said the new rules will put an onus on airlines to show flight disruptions are caused by safety concerns or reasons outside their control.
“This means there will be no more loopholes where airlines can claim a disruption is caused by something outside of their control for a security reason when it’s not,” Alghabra said at the news conference.
“And it will no longer be the passenger who will have to prove that he or she is entitled to compensation. It will now be the airline that will need to prove that it does not have to pay for it.”
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Alghabra did say the government will introduce a range of exceptions for airlines later in the year. He did not say what the exceptions would be, but said a snowstorm which disrupts travel would be one example.
“Airlines are not responsible for a snowstorm … I think Canadians understand when there’s a snowstorm,” he said.
The federal government announced $75.9 million last month to help the CTA clear the complaints backlog.
But Alghabra said the government’s proposed changes, including the stiffer fines, will also ease the pressure on the CTA.
“It’s in the airlines’ vested interest that they deal with [complaints] before they go to the CTA,” Alghabra said.
“Hopefully, we can see that backlog get dealt with much quicker.”