Changes to air passenger rights are coming this spring, says the transport minister Pipa News

Changes to air passenger rights are coming this spring, says the transport minister

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said on Tuesday the government will review air passenger rights in response to travelers’ claims that the system is fundamentally flawed.

Critics have dismissed the airline’s rules as inadequate since they were introduced by the Liberal government in 2017. Until now, Ottawa has been hesitant to make any changes.

Major travel disruptions last summer — and a trouble-ridden travel season at Christmas — have made it clear that reforms are needed to better protect passengers from airlines failing to meet their standards of service, Alghabra told reporters on the sidelines of a federal cabinet retreat in Hamilton.

“Stay tuned – you’ll see action, you’ll see new tools being introduced. Mark my words. I feel the frustrations of Canadians. I heard them. Canadians don’t want to see angry politicians, they want politicians to take action,” he said.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra addresses the media at the Hamilton Convention Center in Hamilton during the second day of the meeting at the Liberal cabinet retreat. (Nick Iwanyshyn/The Canadian Press)

Alghabra said regulatory reform – and possibly new legislation – will be introduced this spring to strengthen passenger rights. It will be one of the government’s priorities when Parliament meets again next week, he said.

A major winter storm in the days before and after Christmas wreaked havoc on the travel industry, stranding passengers as airlines canceled hundreds of flights.

Sunwing, a leisure airline that primarily serves passengers traveling to holiday destinations in the South, left an untold number of passengers stranded in Mexico when it suspended some routes. The disruptions led to some 7,000 complaints to the airline from passengers who had gone out of pocket due to the delays.

While bad weather is hard to avoid in a country like Canada, Alghabra said changes are still needed to make the travel experience more bearable.

During the holiday season, passengers not only complained about weather-related delays, but also poor communication from the airlines about delayed flights and lost luggage.

Airlines can be expected to resist proposed changes.

At a heated meeting of the House of Commons transport committee earlier this month, officials from Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing expressed frustration with how the regime is operating. They believe other industry players, such as government security agencies and airport authorities, should also be responsible for compensating passengers for delays related to their operations.

“Each entity has an independent role to play in making the system work, but airlines are the only ones with enforceable standards and financial obligations. There has to be shared responsibility,” David Rheault, Air Canada’s lobbyist, said at a meeting of the transportation commission on Jan. 12.

Asked if Air Canada would support additional fines or penalties for airlines, Rheault said no.

“Our position is that regulations need to be tightened to take into account all air transport stakeholders,” he said, adding that current regulations “contain very high penalties compared to those imposed by other countries”.

Alghabra said he is not discouraged by the airlines’ position. He said the government “has identified areas for improvement and we are working on them”.

He said Canada is reviewing regulations in other jurisdictions, such as the European Union, where passenger protection has been praised as more customer-friendly.

In the EU, airlines are responsible for delays and cancellations except in the most extreme circumstances, including disruptions caused by terrorism, sabotage, volcanic eruptions, airspace closures and extreme weather conditions.

The Canadian Transportation Agency, the quasi-judicial body created to settle disputes between airlines and passengers, has been inundated with complaints; it now has a backlog of some 33,000 cases. The CTA has said it will take up to 18 months to review a complaint.

One possible solution is to shift the burden of proof from the passengers to the airlines.

Critics argue that passengers are too often told by airlines that they are not entitled to compensation when they are. That has led to an avalanche of complaints to the CTA.

A change in regulations could force airlines to automatically compensate deserving passengers, instead of having them seek compensation from the airline and then turn to the CTA when a worthy claim is denied.

Canada’s frayed travel system has become a political issue for the government.

Conservative leader Pierre Poilièvre posted a video on social media over the weekend taunting the Liberal government for its handling of air transport problems in Canada.

“Flights are always late since you became prime minister,” Poilièvre said in a video shot at Toronto’s Pearson Airport.

“This is the chaos we have in our airports,” he said, showing footage of large crowds at airport check-in counters.

In response, Alghabra said that Poilièvre “has a unique style of making videos and arousing people’s emotions without offering solutions.”

“Canadians don’t want to see angry politicians, they want politicians to take action,” he said.

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