PHOTO: Canada could finally be getting a passenger bill of rights. (Photo via Flickr/Thomas Hawk)
Canada’s Minister of Transport, the Honorable Marc Garneau has issued a stern warning to the airline industry.
“I am sure that you were as disturbed as I was, and as all Canadians were, over the appalling incident that took place onboard a United flight earlier this week, when a passenger was forcibly removed from his seat,” wrote Garneau in a letter he sent to all international airlines serving Canada.
“I am writing to you today to convey that such an incident would be unacceptable in Canada.”
“When passengers purchase an airline ticket, they expect and deserve that the airline will fulfill its part of the transaction. When that agreement is not fulfilled, passengers are entitled to clear, transparent and enforceable compensation," wrote Garneau according to text from ABC.com.
Strong words, especially from a nation that currently allows airlines to set their own policies with respect to how passengers will be treated in the case of delays, cancellations, lost baggage and yes, even, involuntary bumping.
So what rights do travelers have in Canada?
According to the Government of Canada “air passenger rights” web page, passenger rights are currently defined in that tiny fine print that accompanies your ticket and boarding pass, which is called a “tariff” in Canada and “conditions of carriage” in the United States.
According to the web page:
“Air passengers in Canada deserve easy access to clear information about their rights.
“These rights are set out in the airline’s ‘tariff.’ A tariff is its contract with passengers. It contains terms and conditions about how the airline will deal with issues like denied boarding, delays, cancellations, passenger re-routing and lost or damaged baggage.”
In other words, in Canada, airlines currently have the full discretion to determine what happens to passengers when things go horribly wrong.
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In fairness, Canada does also have a voluntary code, Flight Rights Canada (FRC). But according to the government website, the code is honored just by Air Canada, WestJet, and Air Transat.
As for a formal passenger bill of rights, none currently exists. But, promises Minster Garneau, such a bill is coming soon.
While the forcible removal of passenger Dr. Dao from a United Airlines flight in Chicago might be the motivation Canada needs to finally expedite the creation of such bill, the issue has been a hot topic of conversation since well before the United incident.
Back in 2015, Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Center (PIAC) proposed a passenger rights model in its “Consumer Protections for Airline Passengers” report.
“Over 120 million Canadians choose to travel by air each year, yet the consumer protection framework for airline passengers is unclear and not always efficient or effective for consumers,” said PIAC’s Executive Director John Lawford, upon the release of the report.
In March of 2016, the Toronto Star also called for such a bill.
In November, the Canadian federal government introduced a framework for a passenger bill of rights when it rolled out its Transportation 2030 plan, which calls for a sweeping overhaul of the way the aviation industry does business in Canada. A bill delineating passenger rights was just one small component of the Transportation 2030 plan, and not necessarily the most urgent one, although ostensibly its priority has increased in light of last weekend’s incident.
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The PIAC is applauding the government for finally appearing to get serious with respect to a passenger bill of rights.
"The #UnitedAirlines incident shows what can go terribly wrong when airlines have full discretion to decide how their customers can be treated,” said the PIAC in a blog post. “All parties, both air carriers and consumers alike, could use a little air traffic control on these issues.”
Still, the PIAC is also only cautiously optimistic and is encouraging Canadians to take action to ensure the bill remains a priority with government officials.
“We encourage you to contact your local Member of Parliament and Minister Garneau if air travel rights are important to you too.” But as Canadian airports seek to elevate their status as international transfer hubs, It probably couldn’t hurt for Americans who travel frequently to and through Canada to chime in as well.