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Liberals table legislation to overhaul passenger rights charter

The proposed $250K maximum fine for airline violations is a tenfold increase from the existing regulations
The Liberals have put forward legislation that aims to make good on their pledge to tighten passenger rights rules after a year pocked by travel chaos and a ballooning complaints backlog. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The Liberals have put forward legislation that aims to make good on their pledge to tighten passenger rights rules after a year marked by travel chaos and a ballooning complaints backlog.

Tabled in the House of Commons as part of a broader budget bill, the new provisions ratchet up penalties on airlines, shore up the complaint process and target luggage and flight disruption loopholes that have allowed airlines to avoid customer compensation.

READ MORE: Vancouver airport promising improvements following Christmas season travel mess

The proposed $250,000 maximum fine for airline violations — a tenfold increase from the existing regulations — encourages compliance, said Sylvie De Bellefeuille, a lawyer with the advocacy group Option consommateurs.

So does an amendment placing the regulatory cost of complaints on carriers’ shoulders, she said. In theory, the measure incentivizes carriers to brush up on their service and thus reduce the number of grievances against them.

“If these measures are adopted as they are proposed, these are all good things for consumers. It should fix some loopholes that we’ve been talking about for the past two, three years,” De Bellefeuille said.

Undergoing first reading Thursday, the new legislation further demands that airlines institute a process to deal with claims and respond to complaints with a decision within 30 days. The establishment of “complaint resolution officers” at the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) should expedite the process, De Bellefeuille said.

She also applauded the closure of a loophole that has allowed airlines to avoid compensating passengers for delayed luggage, though not for lost luggage.

“This thing was obviously something that was forgotten in the first law,” she said.

The bane of many passengers over the past few years, a second loophole has allowed airlines to deny customers compensation for flight cancellations or three-hour-plus delays if they were “required for safety purposes” — as stipulated in the Canada Transportation Act.

The revised section of that law makes no mention of the safety out, paving the way for the regulator to align its rules with those of the European Union, De Bellefeuille said. The EU distinguishes only between flight disruptions that are within the airline’s control — caused by mechanical issues, for example — and those outside its control, such as weather-related delays. In general, only the latter reason relieves a carrier of compensation obligations.

Not all observers found the would-be law so uplifting.

The legislation fails to ensure transparency for the complaints process and leaves too much discretion in the hands of the regulator, particularly when it comes to compensation for flight disruptions, said Gabor Lukacs, president of advocacy group Air Passenger Rights.

Lukacs pointed to one amendment that states the complaints process “shall be kept confidential, unless the complainant and the carrier otherwise agree.”

“Now, airlines are not going to agree to make things public,” he said.

“They’re trying to create more smoke and mirrors,” he said.

Lukacs also highlighted language stating that compliance officers “shall deal with complaints in the manner that they consider appropriate,” and argued that stricter guidelines should be imposed on the regulators.

Moreover, he said there is nothing to ensure that the safety loophole around flight disruptions will be closed.

The National Airlines Council of Canada, an industry group representing four of the country’s biggest carriers, said the government should focus on other priorities such as airport upgrades and warned that the cost of tougher passenger protections could trickle down to travellers.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra first pledged in January to strengthen the four-year-old passenger rights charter with legislation.

He also pledged an additional $75.9 million over three years to reduce a complaint backlog that has ballooned to nearly 45,000, more than triple the tally from a year ago.

The new amendments overlapped with some of the measures in a private member’s bill put forward last month by NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach. But the legislation did not go so far as to adopt automatic compensation for travellers whose flights are delayed or cancelled.

Bachrach had called for higher penalties and more rigorous enforcement.

“The fines in the legislation as it currently stands are insufficient to act as a deterrent. As long as the cost of following the rules is higher than the cost of breaking them, we’re going to see airlines operate outside the rules as a course of normal business,” he said in a March 17 phone interview.

Agency chair France Pegeot told the transport committee in January that clearer, stronger rules would lead to better enforcement.

But she qualified that the agency’s role as a quasi-judicial tribunal handling complaints is priority No. 1, while its mandate to penalize violations comes second.

“The first thing we do is that we really focus, first of all, on complaints, because this is what puts money in the pockets of consumers,” Pegeot told the committee on Jan. 12.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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