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New Airline Passenger Rights Almost Ready for Takeoff

Travel season is here. Winter means many Canadians are taking to the skies to visit relatives and friends or just to escape the cold. For anyone who’s ran into trouble while traveling, you may have had a difficult time pinpointing where or to whom you can bring your problem. Canada currently lacks a concise and clear list of rights for airline passengers and a solid system of redress for consumer complaints.

Canadian airline passenger have benefited from a form of air travel ombudsman before. An Office of the Air Travel Complaints Commissioner was created in July 2000 following the merger of Air Canada and Canadian Airlines. In its first annual report reviewing the July 2000 to June 2001 period, the Air Travel Complaints Commissioner received 2,912 individual complaints, compared to the mere 169 complaints received by the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) the previous year in 1999. The Commissioner estimated that he still only received less than 2% of the total number of complaints which airline carriers received. The position was only established as a temporary measure and was subsequently removed, and the complaints process was rolled into the functions of the CTA.

On an even more basic level, everyday problems will net you varying responses from one airline to the next. Canada has lacked a single set of rules to govern Airline Passenger Rights, instead, the rules meant to protect consumers are buried within individual provisions in the Canada Transportation Act and Air Transportation Regulations, and other provisions are decided by the airlines themselves. Without a singular set of rules, it can be difficult for consumers to know their rights, let alone have them enforced.

In April 2016, Transport Minister Marc Gameau launched a public consultation with Canadians, stakeholders, provinces and territories, and Indigenous groups to hear their views and discuss ideas to develop a long-term agenda for transportation in Canada.

PIAC has been advocating for clarity for consumers using the travel industry well before the official consultation. PIAC was asked by the Transportation Act Review Secretariat to provide an analysis of air carrier rules from the consumer perspective in 2015. PIAC released its report, Consumer Protection for Airline Passengers in August of 2015. In the report, PIAC looked at consumer protections from around the world and recommended two elements: An Airline Code and an ombudsman for airline complaints. PIAC believes that these two methods together would ensure consumers knew their rights and, if an issue were to fall outside of listed rights, an ombudsman could deal with those complaints.

Just over a year later, we’re beginning to see the promise of substantial change that benefits consumers. The Minister announced an “Air Travellers Passenger Rights Regime”, which will be a series of rules for both carriers and passengers that will govern situations when, as an example, luggage is lost for a passenger is unable to board an aircraft. This is one half of what PIAC pitched in its report.

“Taken together, a future Airline Code and Air Passenger Complaints Commissioner, would clarify the rules for air travel passengers in Canada. Moreover, these measures may get the reputation of Canadian airlines out of a holding pattern, in relation to the treatment of consumer complaints,” stated Jonathan Bishop, PIAC’s Research Analyst and co-author of the report.

PIAC has continued to advocate for and explain its recommendations in meetings with the Minister’s staff at Transport Canada as well as with Scott Streiner, Chairman of the Canadian Transportation Agency, and senior staff at the CTA.

“We hope that the issues we’ve continually raised with them, which are issues travellers experience collectively every day, are addressed by this new ‘code’,” said John Lawford, Executive Director of PIAC. “Flight delays, cancellations, lost and damaged baggage, including musical instruments, refunds, overbooking, it’s a long list; all these things should be addressed and PIAC has been pushing for clear rules on these items to be in this new system that they announced.”

In the meantime, the CTA has encouraged airlines to publish an understandable summary of their tariffs (rules) on their websites so that consumers will have a better idea of how to deal with problems they may face while travelling. Additionally, there should soon be videos in airports for or soon after the holiday season providing information on who you may contact should you run into a problem while at the airport.

PIAC is hopeful that the Minister will address most, if not all, of the issues we’ve outlined in our report and in subsequent meetings. PIAC is also optimistic that either an official ombudsman or an ombudsman-like entity which can deal with the problems that fall within of the scope of the ‘Passenger Rights Regime’ will also be created. We are hoping that new legislation will be ready for takeoff in 2018.

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