That the House call upon the government to bring forward an airline passenger bill of rights similar in scope and effect to legal instruments being either proposed or enacted by jurisdictions within Europe and the United States for the purpose of protecting passenger interests in a consistent and rules-based way and to provide a means of ensuring adequate compensation being offered by the airline industry to airline passengers who experience inconveniences such as flight interruptions, delays, cancellations, issues with checked baggage and other inconveniences incurred while travelling on commercial passenger airline services originating from anywhere in Canada.
Mr. Speaker, I believe that Parliament must take immediate and decisive action on a matter that is of vital importance to Canadians, creating a guaranteed protection for the rights of airline passengers.
Air travel is not an elitist privilege or at least it should not have to be. Air travel is the way that millions of Canadians, living and working in every part of this country, reunite with their families and stay connected to each other. It is how many Canadians from coast to coast to coast choose to explore the beauty and expanse of this great country, and it is vital for a country as large as ours that we remain truly linked together.
Air travel is an important part of that. The actual experience, however, is not always a positive one.
How many Canadians have felt the sheer frustration of sitting in an airport waiting area, straining to listen to hear the crackle of an inaudible overhead PA system wondering if this might be the long awaited boarding call for their flight, one that has already been delayed for five hours, and one for which absolutely no explanation has been offered by the airline as to the original cause of the delay?
How many Canadians have felt the anxiety of having a connecting flight cancelled while in mid-journey, a situation completely beyond their control and one that will inevitably force them to incur unanticipated, unbudgeted for, additional costs, such as hotel bills, taxis and meals? This is money they may not necessarily have.
How many Canadians have arrived at the assigned gate for their flight, boarding passes in hand, only to be told to go back to the desk because the airline decided several weeks ago to oversell the same flight to ensure that it would take off full?
How many Canadians have been forced to remain on board an aircraft, held captive with no place to go, no choices available for them to make themselves, and delayed for hours with no end in sight?
How many Canadians have arrived at their destination only to find that their bags have not and then to discover that there is no one available at the airport to explain what they should do next?
Instead, they are told to get in touch with a call centre located in India where the person on the other end of the phone tells them how they can make a claim in 30 days if their bags are not found by then. Obviously, it is impossible they are told to say from India whether their bags are still in Winnipeg or in Toronto.
How many times do Canadians, who are grieving loved ones and who are awaiting the remains to be returned back home in time for the funeral services, have to find out that the body was bumped in Montreal for either better paying cargo or because clerical errors at the airline? We are not sure which?
The answer is that these situations occur far more often than any of us may actually think. These are the stories of real passengers and real problems, and these problems in the airlines are getting worse.
Let me be clear at the outset. Canadians should rest completely assured that when it comes to flight safety, Canada has one of the most effective regulatory regimes in the world. Canada is a global leader in ensuring mandatory flight safety. We are always looking for better ways to make improvements on that impressive record.
The problems, however, that I refer to are not ones of flight safety but of that woefully inadequate consumer protection for passengers of commercial airlines. Let me put it this way. These issues do not occur while the planes are in the sky. They are ones more typically that occur when the planes are still on the ground.
A well run competitive airline should not consider reasonable customer service as an option to be exercised occasionally and then only for the highest paying passengers.
In Canada airline passengers are left completely vulnerable to the recent industry turbulence that has been created by a complete lack of any regulated consumer protection. In Canada there are precious few rules protecting passengers, but there is a lot of legal language that limits the liability of the airlines themselves.
This inadequacy of voluntary compensation strategies and yes, commercial greed and abuse directed toward paying customers is the issue at hand. Once we pass through security or on the aircraft, the airlines duty of care and the responsibility inherent in that relationship are no longer a matter for the marketplace to direct.
It is a matter for the regulator to oversee. In any other circumstance this lack of consumer protection would never be tolerated, especially when we consider that the airline industry is guarded by the oversight responsibility of the federal government.
Since tabling my motion in the House, my office has been inundated with faxes, emails, telephone calls and letters from ordinary Canadians, airline passengers and consumers, who paid good money for a ticket thinking it was a contract to travel from one destination to the other.
Reaction to their experiences range from genuine empathy to sheer horror at the extent to which greed and neglect has been shown to them by certain airlines. They all have an interesting story to tell. All were paying customers.
None, however, can illustrate any better why a Canadian passenger bill of rights is so badly needed here in Canada than Cubana Airlines flights 170 and 172, which flew on March 8, six short weeks ago.
Having left Havana en route back to Montreal, two plane loads with hundreds of Canadian passengers on board had to be diverted to Ottawa when Montreal closed down due to weather. When they arrived, there was no bus waiting for them to continue on to their final destination. Nor was there a lounge where they could relax, get a cup of coffee and wait it all out. Instead, after five hours in flight, over 300 Canadian passengers were held on a runway for 12 hours, with the cabin doors closed and no way for them to escape. The plane did not connect to a gate.
After about eight hours of this, food and water began to run out. Then toilets completely filled and began to overflow. Still neither the company, nor the captain, nor the Ottawa airport authority took effective action to ensure that the flight hooked up to a gate and the passengers were unloaded. Fingers are still pointing as to whose fault this all was. Personally, I do not particularly care. It should never have been allowed to happen, period, not in Canada.
It was not until one of the passengers had the good sense to dial 911 on his cellphone, demanding to be put through to an RCMP duty officer, that something finally happened. The clear distress and desperation in the passenger's voice caused police to intervene and the plane finally docked so passengers could leave.
I can only imagine what law was used by the RCMP against those who caused all of this. I can only imagine because there are no rules in Canada against such clear cut consumer abuses when it comes to the Canadian airline industry.
I can only assume that the sole tool police had available to them that night to assist those passengers was the powers of the Criminal Code. Without any laws or regulations to protect these passengers, I can only presume that the police must have advised all involved that if those passengers were not allowed to get off those planes of their own free will, immediately, police would be forced to seize the planes and lay charges related to involuntary confinement under the Criminal Code.
The Criminal Code seems like a rather blunt instrument to ensure basic consumer rights are protected in Canada. Plainly put, that is why we need a airline passenger bill of rights, legislation similar to what is already in force throughout all of Europe.
On February 17, 2005, European parliamentarians brought in a passenger bill of rights, requiring all European airlines, as well as foreign-based airlines flying out of European airports, to provide reasonable care and compensation to passengers in the event of delays, cancellations, denied boarding, delayed or lost baggage, along with legal requirements to publicly report the reasons for flight delays and to ensure that customers were made aware of the full extent of their rights.
Three years after coming into force, no one in Europe today is saying “let's get rid of it”. The legislation is applied fully regardless of what the actual cause of the original delay to begin with, whether it was a storm, company negligence, or mechanical issues.
Jacques Barrot, the European Commission's vice-president responsible for transportation, noted that when he announced the European airline passenger bill of rights back in 2005, “Competitiveness and competition in the air sector must go hand in hand with guaranteed passengers' rights”.
Here is a special point of interest to the debate. Even non-EU airlines that fly from European airports are required to comply with the European airline passenger bill of rights.
In other words, when Air Canada or any other Canadian airline leaves an EU airport to fly back home to Canada, its passengers are given statutory rights to service and compensation through the EU's bill of rights. However, when that same Air Canada flight arrives back home and goes on to a new destination, these rules no longer apply. It is an interesting point.
People might be interested to know as well that the United States has already enacted airline passenger rights legislation. They may have heard about the state of New York's laws that created significant legal obligations on air carriers choosing to fly in and out of that state. The rules that New York created were clear and meaningful and provided for significant fines against any breach by an airline. It was struck down, however, but only because responsibility for aviation regulation is a federal jurisdiction, not a state prerogative. This regulatory void, however, is quickly being filled by the legislature with appropriate jurisdiction, the U.S. Congress.
H.R. 1303, the airline passenger bill of rights act of 2007, which is currently before the House of Representatives, and S. 678, the airline passenger bill of rights act of 2007, which is currently before the U.S. Senate, are both moving forward. These bills deal specifically with airline passengers' rights in the case of flight delays.
At the same time, there are also two other bills before Congress that include the same provisions as the two bills I just mentioned, but are part of a much broader package of amendments to certain other acts that create even greater airline passenger rights for U.S. customers. Those bills are H.R. 2881, the FAA reauthorization act of 2007, which has already been passed by the House of Representatives, and S. 1300, the aviation investment and modernization act of 2007, which is currently before the Senate.
Bill H.R. 2881, namely, sections 401, 406 and 418 to 423, may be of particular interest to members as the legal requirements established for both U.S. and Canadian carriers flying within the U.S. clearly protect consumer rights. My question then is: Are we prepared to have a two tier international aviation system, with Canada being on the bottom rung?
It is almost a certainty that the U.S. will be imposing these regulations, similar to what is already in place in the European Union. This creates an important consideration for the Canadian airline industry and its oversight of it. Failure to at least match consumer protection standards of our international competitors will leave the Canadian industry with a serious competitive disadvantage.
If one has an option to travel on a British Airways flight, for example, or on Air Canada on a return trip to the U.K., which airline would one fly on? The airline in which the European parliament will be guaranteeing a person's consumer rights or one where the Canadian Parliament is guaranteeing a person nothing?
The international context of an emerging best practices model in the aviation industry is moving rapidly toward providing superior state enforced customer service minimums and this is not something that Canada should ignore or avoid. The time for the Canadian airline passenger bills of rights is now.
I implore the House to dig into this issue further. I would enjoy the opportunity to work with each and every member to draft legislation and bring it forward.
Given that my time is up, if anyone wishes to continue this exchange or look for more indepth information or analysis, I invite people to visit my website at www.gerrybyrne.ca, where they will find significant research and background information on this issue and an opportunity to provide feedback.