Bringing Clarity to Passenger Compensation Rules.

Author:Jack, Ian

The last time Ottawa decided to make some noise about air passenger rights, in 2000, they brought an ex-NHL referee to a news conference. Bruce Hood, the newly minted air complaints commissioner, pulled out a whistle and blew it. Literally.

If you're looking for the highlight of Ottawa's past work to improve the passenger experience, that would be about it. Hood packed up his whistle and left town within two years, and the initiative fizzled out a few years later.

So, when the Liberal government announced consultations on improving passenger rights in 2016, the history on the file was not encouraging. There had been talk of an airline bill of rights for decades in Ottawa, countless private member's bills that have gone nowhere, and many consultations. But they have always foundered, as a succession of governments decided for a couple of reasons to leave the airlines alone.

Finally, last month, Parliament passed the Transportation Modernization Act, which mandates the Canadian Transportation Agency to develop regulations for airlines' obligations to air passengers. Those CTA consultations have just begun, and the process will bear close watching.

Governments have long been leery of slapping excess regulation on a business that frequently seems to be flirting with the line between profit and loss. One just has to recall the litany of bankruptcies among US, European and Asian carriers. Most countries, Canada included, have also believed in the importance of maintaining at least one flag carrier, an airline to represent the country in other markets.

The resulting policy stance has meant the Canadian mainline carriers--the ones that serve all the less profitable routes that connect the country--are treated a little like the banks. That means either being expected to maintain a strong network, even during adverse economic conditions, or being protected to the point where competition on price and service suffers.

But it must be said that airlines do a good job, most of the time. There are very few businesses that have as many direct dealings with customers--each one a potential opportunity to fumble a reservation, lose a bag, oversell a flight or spill a drink. Given the multiple possibilities of screwing up, it's a miracle--and a tribute to good systems--that most of us get where we're going when we fly, most of the time.

And yet, bad things do happen. And when they do, it's been quite unclear what the average person's rights are or how to claim...

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