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Airline passengers’ bill of rights not on horizon

Passengers line up to check in for Sun Wing flights at Toronto’s Pearson airport Jan. 8, 2013. Exteme cold this week forced widespread delays and cancellations at Canadian airports.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Travellers stranded by days of flight cancellations have been cleared from the country's largest airport, but a passengers' bill of rights that might have reduced their misery – something once floated by the federal Conservative government – is nowhere on the horizon.

More than 50 countries around the world, including the United States and those in the European Union, have formal rules governing the treatment of airline customers.

Canada does not. And Transport Minister Lisa Raitt is giving no indication that enshrining passenger rights is high on her agenda. "The government will be looking to take action on a number of consumer protection measures," Ashley Kelahear, a spokeswoman for Ms. Raitt, said in an e-mail Friday when asked about passengers' rights.

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Last fall, Industry Minister James Moore suggested the government was preparing to act.

"People who have paid for their ticket show up at the gate, go through security, arrive on time, and they find that their ticket has been sold twice and that somebody else is occupying their chair and they have to get rebooked, sometimes missing a wedding, missing a funeral, and having their business life interrupted," he told CTV when asked about rights for airline passengers. "That's not fair to consumers, it's not fair to travellers and we are looking to take action on that front as well."

When asked about it later, however, Mr. Moore said the federal government will not address consumers' concerns about airlines before it deals with the telecom sector. And Pierre Poilievre, the minister of state for democratic reform, has said a passengers' bill of rights might place a regulatory burden on air carriers who would pass the costs on to the consumer.

But when airports bog down, many of those consumers are rendered helpless.

This week's extreme cold prompted officials at Toronto's Pearson airport to halt many incoming flights, triggering a backlog that lasted more than two days. Connections were missed and trips were called off. Some passengers were forced to find other methods of travel. Others just slept at the airport until they could get on a plane. And many of those who had checked their luggage could not retrieve it from the massive pile that built up in storage rooms.

Weather delays at airports are unavoidable, especially in a country with a climate like Canada's. But critics say there is much the airlines could do to reduce the stress and inconvenience of being trapped at an airport.

Olivia Chow, the transport critic for the NDP, said in 2010, the year before the United States brought in a slate of passenger protections, the number of incidents of passengers being stuck on planes on a tarmac for three hours or more in that country was 693. By 2012, that was down to 42. "So we know regulations and fines work," Ms. Chow said.

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In other countries, passengers are compensated for lost luggage and getting bumped off planes as a result of overbooking. In Canada, some airlines pay a small amount of money for those inconveniences while others pay nothing at all, she said.

"In Canada, there is no protection, no rights, and it's completely unfair," said Ms. Chow, who urged the government to take a look at the private member's legislation her party has drafted on passenger rights.

Gabor Lukacs, a Halifax mathematician who has become a prominent voice for passenger rights, said airlines cannot be blamed for all weather delays, but they must do a better job of communicating with passengers and should compensate them for out-of-pocket expenses .

"Of course, I do support a passenger bill of rights," Dr. Lukacs said, "and I was very disappointed that the federal government has been consistently blocking such private member bills."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More


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