Mr. Speaker, I would like to comment briefly on the previous speech. Unregulated monopolies that are imposing airport improvement fees without the consultation of air carriers or the communities are not a good idea, or an idea that needs to be exported anywhere. In fact, unregulated monopolies are generally not a good idea.
I rise to participate in the debate on Bill C-27, an act respecting airport authorities and other airport operators and amending other acts, otherwise known as the Canada airports act. In just the past couple of weeks I can think of various transport related priorities and priority actions that this Parliament has called on the Liberal government to implement. In fact, one only need go back to the last day of the House sitting just before the Easter break, on April 11, when the Standing Committee on Transport tabled our unanimous report, “An Industry in Crisis: Safeguarding the Viability of the Canadian Airline Industry”.
Our standing committee heard witnesses, read reports and then made four specific recommendations to the House and to the Liberal government. Three of them could be implemented immediately without any need to impose new legislation. It could be done in regulations with the stroke of a pen by the Liberal cabinet. Recommendation 2 was that, and I quote:
The federal government eliminate the Air Travellers Security Charge.
Recommendation 3 stated:
The federal government suspend rental payments by airports for a two-year period and the airports shall pass the rental savings on to air carriers.
Recommendation 4 stated:
The federal government, for a two-year period, reduce by 50% the federal aviation fuel excise tax rate.
There are three things that need to be said about these recommendations. First, they were unanimous. They were supported by all five political parties in the House. Second, they are clear and they are unambiguous. There is no doubt whatsoever as to their meaning, their intent and their consequence. Third, they can be implemented today without passing any new legislation.
These changes are what virtually every industry stakeholder, from Air Canada to its competitors and from the travel industry to various unions have been demanding from the government for well over a year. The government's complete unwillingness to take concrete action to solve the problems affecting the airline industry is both baffling and astounding. It is also, given the number of jobs involved in both the airline and tourism sectors, somewhat tragic.
We have all heard the expression, “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic ”. It is meant to apply to a situation where those in control do nothing substantial to remedy the situation but then take some superficial action so that it cannot be charged against them that they did not take any kind of action at all.
The airline industry is in trouble and the House Standing Committee on Transport sought and received the industry's advice as to what constructive steps this Liberal government might take. The committee then unanimously adopted recommendations and forwarded them to the government. However, the Liberal Minister of Transport does not want to do anything substantial to help the airline industry and he does not want to be seen to be doing nothing, so he has introduced the bill that we are debating today, Bill C-27, the Canada airports act. Truly, he is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic .
Even if we were to consider only the government's policy with respect to airports, the Canada airports act fails to address some of the more important issues facing airports. As a member of Parliament, the single most common airport related concern that I receive is related to an issue known as CARs 308, a recently imposed five minute emergency response time at smaller airports that has dramatically increased the operating costs for smaller airports. The federal government has not offered a dime in operating assistance. This unfunded federal government mandate is a requirement and it is the biggest single issue facing many small airports. It is completely absent in this bill we are debating today. It is the number one concern. It is what we hear most about and it is not in this bill.
The second biggest issue that many of us face is trying to meet new and heightened security standards while understanding that small airports are often the weakest link in the security system. Other countries such as Germany, England and France, with more experience in dealing with terrorists at airports, require arriving passengers from certain destinations to go through security screening upon arrival before proceeding to connecting flights. Essentially, these passengers arrive in a non-secure part of the larger airport and must proceed through security screening in order to get into the secure portions of the airport.
Such a system in Canada would allow for passengers departing smaller centres on small aircraft to go through security only if they were connecting to a major centre. The Europeans use this system because it costs less and offers the type of security they have needed in the past to fight organizations like the IRA, the ETA and the Baader-Meinhof group. Nowhere is this idea found in Bill C-27, the Canada airports act.
I know that the Canada airports act deals only with larger airports. Nonetheless, if the average member of Parliament is getting mail on small airports and the Liberal government introduces a bill dealing with big airports, there are some who would say that the government is really not listening to Canadians. We certainly have a transport minister who does not listen to the transportation sector.
We have a Liberal administration that has ignored the Standing Committee on Transport's unanimous recommendations on how to help the airline industry. We have a Minister of Transport who has chosen to ignore Canada's single biggest airport related issue when telling his department what issues he wants them to address. He has ignored CARs 308.
Then, and this is the best part, we have a Minister of Transport who has introduced a Canada airports act that is at best totally unnecessary and at worst a huge step backward.
When we talk to the airline industry, the airport operators and the flying public, we find a general acceptance of the way that airports are being run. Of course there are a few problems, but no one has yet contacted my office and said that there is something wrong with the airports which must be addressed rapidly and we need a new law to deal with them and we have to get this done. We just do not hear that from Canadians, yet that is precisely what we have here in this legislation.
Every law that a government tables presumably is aimed at solving a particular problem. Thus, every act has a summary of the ways in which it would improve the status quo or remedy a particular wrong. In analyzing the Canada airports act, it is instructive to look for the motivation. The national airports policy laid out in section 7 of the Canada airports act calls for a “national network of airports in Canada” that are operated in a consistent manner. Essentially, Bill C-27 believes that all airports in our “national network” should be run in a similar way.
The logical problem with this approach becomes readily apparent when one realizes that the scheme would apply equally to both Gander airport, which handled 86,000 passengers in 2000, and Toronto's Pearson airport, which served 28 million passengers. For every person who goes through Gander, 325 will go through Toronto. In fact, with 17,000 people working at Toronto international airport, Toronto has about one-fifth as many staff as Gander has annual passengers. Yet under Bill C-27, both would face similar obligations and regulations.
To the extent that Bill C-27 is aimed at providing a one size fits all solution for a huge range of airports, this is not only a bad idea but also a solution for a problem that simply does not exist. In fact, the bill provides for two very different regimes. One regime, described in parts 2, 3 and 4 of Bill C-27, applies only to the following 18 former Transport Canada operated airports: Charlottetown, Fredericton, Gander, Halifax, London, Moncton, Montreal, Ottawa, Prince George, Quebec, Regina, Saskatoon, St. John's, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Victoria. Another regime applies to all Canadian airports that have had an average of 200,000 emplaned and deplaned passengers over the last three years. Right away we realize that Gander does not reach the 200,000 threshold, so we might think that the Canada airports act would not apply to Gander. But because Gander was a major international airport a few years ago, it is not only covered by the act but by the same standards that are currently applied and would be applied under Bill C-27 to Toronto's Pearson airport and Vancouver.
We see similar problems when we compare Thunder Bay and Hamilton, both of which served roughly 550,000 passengers in the year 2001. Bill C-27 would hold Thunder Bay, a former Transport Canada facility, to a higher standard than Hamilton, WestJet's eastern hub. Thus, 84 of Bill C-27's 215 sections do not apply to Abbotsford, Kelowna or Hamilton, all of which have non-stop service to cities at other ends of the country, but they do apply to smaller airports simply because these airports were formerly owned by Transport Canada.
Prior to the introduction of Bill C-27, Canadians were not overly concerned about the poor management of our nation's airports. So Bill C-27, by imposing a one size fits all regime, fixes problems that did not exist and creates a whole new bunch of problems by treating different airports similarly and similar airports differently.
All this leaves one asking what grave problem Bill C-27 was meant to solve. Given that parts 2, 3 and 4 dealing with airport authorities' legal status, corporate governance and obligations do not apply to places like Abbotsford, Kelowna and Hamilton or, for the moment, Edmonton or Calgary, it does not seem likely that issues such as corporate governance motivated the minister to table this bill.
Part 1 is one of four parts of Bill C-27 and would apply to all airports. In it we find clause 18. Subclause 18(1) reads as follows:
(1) Airport operators of airports serving international traffic must
(a) display the national flag of Canada, and erect signs welcoming passengers to Canada, in prominent places for arriving international passengers; and
(b) display the national flag of Canada at other prominent places on the airport.
We have the federal government mandating that there be flags in the airports. A pre-eminent concern for the state.
In my reading of Bill C-27 and the 1992 Airport Transfer (Miscellaneous Matters) Act, which is the act that started the process of handing over airports to airport authorities, this flag portion is one of the few clauses that is really new. It would almost seem to go without saying that the Canadian flag should be at Canadian airports, but surely this does not require legislation.
The Aéroports de Montréal website does not have either the Canadian or Quebec flags on it and neither does much of its printed material. However, there is a big Canadian flag on display greeting arriving passengers in English and in French together with a similar Quebec flag displaying a greeting for arriving passengers in French. Both of these were operational on Thursday, April 24, 2003.
If an airport is not more enthusiastic in its use of flags, that is not a problem. I do not believe that we can legislate patriotism, but apparently that is a pre-eminent preoccupation of the government. We have 35,000 Air Canada employees who could be completely out of work. We have airport authorities taxing Canadians. We have an air traveller security charge. We have a depression in the number of people flying. We have SARS and the government says that we need to mandate flags in airports.
The same kind of thinking can be found in part 4, clause 116 in the requirement of an airport authority to prominently display the Canadian flag. Subclause 116(1) reads:
(1) Every airport authority must
(a) display the national flag of Canada prominently at every air terminal building and at other places on the airport to which the public has access; and
(b) erect signs in prominent places at the entrance to the airport and to every air terminal building, proclaiming that the airport is owned by the Government of Canada.
(2) The Governor in Council may make regulations prescribing the locations of, dimensions of, and manner of displaying and erecting signs and displaying flags at their airport, and prescribing the contents of the signs.
However, clause 116 goes further than clause 18 in requiring the airport authorities to erect signs saying that the airport is owned by the Government of Canada. If the government believes that the ownership of buildings occupied by tenants have a higher profile, I would suggest it would begin by posting large “This building is owned by (blank)” signs on all Ottawa buildings that the federal government rents.
Curiously, clause 191 and 192 prescribe fines, a fine of up to $100,000 for every day an offence is committed. Therefore, if Bill C-27 passes, the airports better call the flag and sign folks rather quickly.
Clauses 16 and 118 are essentially silly, but at least one industry source has told my office that he believes this is the primary motivation for Bill C-27 as there were no calls by either the airlines or airports or the public to codify the status quo with a flawed one size fits all regime.
To the extent that one might tend to support Bill C-27, because of a desire to wave the flag, it is important to understand that any potential benefit to flag visibility would be more than outweighed by the flawed one size fits all regime of Bill C-27. This not only forces different airports to a common standard, but it also treats similarly sized former Transport Canada facilities and municipal airports differently. This is not just a flaw in Bill C-27. It has a serious commercial impact on airport authorities.
For example, clause 57 would limit an airport authority's ability to invest in another corporation to just 2% of gross revenues per year. The Vancouver airport authority, YVR, which owns the profitable YVR airport services, YVRAS, is concerned that this clause would limit its ability to finance YVRAS's projects in Chile, Jamaica or Hamilton. YVR writes:
...investment opportunities do not come in neat bundles, nor do they arise every year. (This) is also a demonstration of an “Ottawa knows better” (idea) than the community based board about what is good for the community (and the airport).
YVRAS operates 12 airports in five countries and competes against management subsidiaries run by Amsterdam Schiphol and London Heathrow. This is partially in response to page 49 of Transport Canada's national airports policy of July 1994 which talked of contributing “to the future competitiveness of Canada worldwide”. More recently federal cabinet ministers have promoted YVRAS's bids in other countries. Section 57 is a major reversal in Canadian airport policy.
However, the dual regime proposed by Bill C-27 makes section 57 doubly unfair because it would apply to airports like Vancouver but not nearby competitors such as Kelowna and Abbotsford.
Another case of uneven treatment of Bill C-27 is the way it deals with corporate governance. Airlines have been contacting my office to ensure that they will play a greater role in influencing terminal design in order to reduce costs and possibly opulence.
Section 64 requires that the board must collectively have experience in “law, engineering, accounting, management in the air carrier industry”, but there is no specific requirement for the board to have a single representative from the airline industry or general aviation at all.
This is in stark contrast to Nav Canada, the private company that handles air traffic control in Canada. Given the ability of airport authorities to impose greater fees and passenger fees as well as seize certain aircraft, the lack of mandatory aviation industry representation is a fatal flaw of Bill C-27. Although section 97 requires the airport authority to meet with carriers once a year, this is a poor substitute for specific tangible power in terms of board representation.
I am not necessarily arguing for the Nav Canada model, but there should be room on the board of 15 people who run a major airport for at least one of those people to be named specifically by the airline industry. Like section 57, section 64 only applies to former Transport Canada facilities, so the board of directors at Thunder Bay must follow the requirements of Bill C-27. But Hamilton, which is growing more quickly, can follow its own independent bylaws.
Another clause that only applies to former Transport Canada facilities and that clearly shows the shaky ethical grasp of the Liberal government is section 96. It reads:
96(1) An airport authority must disclose any contracts involving expenditures in excess of $100,000 that were not awarded under a public bid solicitation process, the name of the contracting party, the purpose and value of the contract and the reasons why a public bid solicitation process was not followed.
Section 96 does not require a tender process for any project under $100,000. Worse, it also exempts larger projects from the tender process as long as the airport authority discloses that no bids were solicited for that project. Potentially, everything from truck purchases to consulting contracts could involve favoured, non-arm's length suppliers.
When we realize that just last October Transport Canada was looking into millions of dollars of untendered, non-arm's length contracts and questionable dealings connected with the Port of Digby, we would think that the government would apply higher standards to airport authorities. When we realize that the government wants to oblige 100% of airports to display the Canadian flag, but it is willing to let an airport authority hand $99,000 in contracts to its friends with no problem, we see an Alfonso Gagliano-type politics at work in the bill. Surely Canadians deserve better.
In closing, Bill C-27 is a dramatic failure on the part of the government. There are smaller airports that are struggling. We have a SARS problem, depressed consumer confidence, shaky fuel prices, an airport security tax that is unanimously opposed by every single stakeholder in the transport community, and constant problems in the airline industry, some 35,000 people whose jobs may be potentially lost at Air Canada.
The airline industry in Canada is in precarious times right now and the government puts forward Bill C-27 which does nothing to address any of the substantively crumbling pillars of Canada's airline industry. It is a bad bill. It is poorly written with non-priorities. It is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic by a Liberal transport minister who has shown zero leadership. Eight air carriers died in the six years that he has been transport minister. He has been a complete failure with regard to the air industry. With Bill C-27, we see that he has learned nothing from his mistakes.