Mr. Speaker, the Government of Canada's first priority with respect to air travel is safety. That being said, the government supports consumer protection measures.
Our government understands the stresses associated with air travel, particularly with the effects caused by Canadian weather and the volume of traffic during holiday periods. The recent closure of airspace over Europe as a result of a volcanic eruption in Iceland is another dramatic example of unexpected stresses that can affect air travel.
The government launched flight rights Canada in September 2008, which was intended to inform the travelling public of Canada's consumer protection regime, their rights under the regime and how they can seek redress.
When Bill C-310 was initially presented to the House in 2009, a number of issues were raised regarding how the bill's punitive measures penalized airlines for events outside their control, such as weather and tarmac delays. In doing so, air passenger safety is potentially put second to passenger convenience, where pilot risk-taking to avoid paying compensation may take hold. Such high penalities, likely to increase ticket prices, could also threaten the number of flights to more remote locations.
It is clear that this legislation, while well intended, was not drafted in consultation with industry stakeholders who brought forward these concerns. It was also found to be inconsistent with European or United States legislation in this regard.
After the bill passed second reading in May 2009, Bill C-310 was referred to the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities for review where the committee invited key industry and consumer stakeholders to present their views on the bill. Although the bill's intention to improve airline customer service and ensure appropriate compensation was well received by some witnesses, industry stakeholders raised serious concerns.
As per information received during the bill's initial consideration, these stakeholders, as well as a number of government and opposition members, felt that the bill's punitive and unfair provisions would have serious repercussions for the airlines' financial viability and services to remote and/or rural communities. After hearing detailed testimony from the witnesses, the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities recommended that Bill C-310 not proceed further. I support this position and I will tell the House why today.
First, the bill does not take existing legislation or consumer protection into account. It is incompatible with the Canada Transportation Act's existing consumer protection regime. The bill would also prevail over the Aeronautics Act, which creates safety concerns. These are fundamental issues.
Current procedures clearly specify how unsatisfied air passengers may seek redress from the Canadian Transportation Agency on matters such as baggage, flight disruptions, tickets and reservations, denied boarding, passenger fares and charges, and various carrier operated loyalty programs. However, consumers seeking compensation under this bill would have to seek redress through the courts. Such a pattern, which is costly, time-consuming and a burden on Canada's legal system, could be especially protracted since it would take some time for the case law to develop an appropriate redress under the bill to be defined. This work would be especially challenging and would require additional legal, governmental and financial resources to be carried out.
Second, by failing to take into account the role of other entities in delays or cancellations, the bill's sole focus on airlines is unfair and would not forgive future delays and cancellations. For example, air carriers would be held liable to passengers for delays and cancellations due to inclement weather, slow de-icing procedures, airport congestion and air traffic control issues, such as the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland.
While the bill includes exceptions where airlines would not have to pay compensation because of extraordinary circumstances, such circumstances are not defined. So, again the courts would have to define what these are.
The bill's measures are especially significant for the financial viability of smaller carriers serving remote locations, such as northern and/or Atlantic Canada and rural areas. There is a risk that given the costs associated with the bill, be they to provide food or accommodation, even in the case of weather delays that are outside of the airlines' controls, services to these areas could be reduced or potentially disappear. This could lead to higher unemployment and reduced tourism, affecting the economic viability of these communities. It could also force residents to rely on ground transportation modes that may not be readily available or convenient for everyone.
Third, not only is the bill overly punitive to air carriers, but it would also not improve the air passenger travelling experience. First, the bill's fines could incite pilots to fly during difficult weather conditions or with mechanical problems in order to avoid paying compensation to passengers. This is unacceptable and unsafe behaviour that should not be encouraged in any legislation. The bill's excessive penalties could drive higher prices or affect already slim carrier margins. Our airline industry is fragile at the best of times and consumers would not benefit from rising prices, especially during these still challenging economic times.
I will conclude by emphasizing this government's support for consumer protection measures in the aviation industry and our ongoing objective to create a balance between protecting passengers and ensuring a competitive industry. We cannot support Bill C-310.