CAA Comments on Bill C-49

Wing of airplane in the sky
September 14, 2017

CAA Comments in Support of Bill C-49, An Act to amend the Canada Transportation Act and other Acts respecting transportation and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts

Appearance before the House Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities
September 14, 2017

Good afternoon. Let me begin by thanking the members of the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities for inviting the Canadian Automobile Association – CAA – to join you today to comment on Bill C-49, specifically as it relates to air passenger rights. I will begin my remarks by providing some background on our role in air passenger rights.

CAA was founded in 1913 to represent the interests of motorists, but the world has evolved since then and so have we. Today we have 6.2 million members from coast to coast, and the services we offer them extend well beyond emergency roadside assistance.

Of note for today’s discussion, we are one of Canada’s largest leisure travel agencies, through our store network and online. But we also remain a non-profit, member-driven organization that is, at its heart, an advocate for the Canadian traveller.

Our agents work with air passengers every day. We understand the business. This allows us to take a strong, informed position in favour of air passenger rights, while at the same time recognizing that the consumer interest is best served by healthy, competing airlines.

The passenger protection regime in Canada has been untouched for many years, leading to a widening discrepancy between how US and European air travellers are treated on one side, and Canadians on the other. It is time that we do better when it comes to protecting Canadian air travellers.

CAA polling – conducted well before recent air incidents – found that an overwhelming 91 per cent of Canadians agree it is time Canada has its own national airline consumer code.

CAA welcomes and supports Bill C-49 as it contains many of the improvements that we have been calling for over the past few years. We believe it will better protect the travelling public.

At the same time, the bill is not perfect. The bill also leaves the all-important details on treatment and compensation – when and how much, for instance – to a future regulatory process and we urge this committee to pay close attention to that process. A good-sounding bill will end up a failure if the end result is a coffee coupon in compensation for being bumped. We must all work to ensure that does not happen.

Bill C-49 addresses some important areas such as:

  • Covering all airlines, both domestic and foreign, as well as all passengers whether Canadian or non-Canadian, to avoid situations where certain passengers are treated less well than others.
  • It sets out that minimum standards of treatment and compensation will be developed for key categories such as delays, cancellations, overbooking and lost or damaged bags.
  • It addresses family seating with children at no extra fee.
  • It provides for the Canadian Transportation Agency’s ability to collect and monitor airline performance data as it relates to passenger handling.
  • And, it gives the Agency the ability to extend decisions to other passengers on the same flight also affected by the same incident.

However, the bill relies on a complaint from a passenger in order to trigger any action. We agree with Scott Streiner, CEO of the Canadian Transportation Agency, and David Emerson, both of whom said in testimony earlier this week that the regime would be more effective if the agency could initiate its own investigations when it deems them necessary, and make industry-wide rulings on minimum treatment, rather than restrict its findings to the passengers on one flight.

It’s worth noting that the CTA was able to initiate hearings into the Air Transat situation of a few weeks ago only because it concerned an international flight. The CTA would not have the authority, even under C-49, to decide itself to hold a hearing into a similar situation if the flight occurred within Canada. Nor will the CTA be able to examine any broader, systemic issues the CTA might note, that do not come from a specific complaint – it would have to ask the Minister for permission to investigate them.

Another matter worth noting is that in some circumstances the regulations are likely to set out clear rules – for instance, that for a delay of X hours within an airline’s control, passengers should receive Y in compensation. Again, the current system would require a complaint from a passenger in order to initiate a payment. But the airlines have this information, and will know when they are offside – why does the system have to wait for a complaint? Why not compensate proactively in these cases?

This is an important consideration in light of recent findings from the EU Consumer Association, which reports that only 1 in 4 EU flyers are getting the compensation they are due for lengthy delays, because airlines are not required to proactively offer it. It would also allow the CTA to focus on more complex complaints.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says some 60 countries have some form of passenger rights protection already in place. For too long, Canada has relied on the airlines’ own policies and a needlessly complex complaint process through the Canadian Transportation Agency.

While the vast majority of air travel goes off without a hitch, a clear set of standards should benefit everyone, from passengers to the industry, which will be able to compete on a level playing field.

However, as noted earlier, whether the new regime is effective will be dependent on the regulatory process. As a consumer watchdog, here’s some of what CAA will be looking for through the regulation-making process:

  • Clear, simple and understandable terms and conditions that the average traveller can understand;
  • Levels of compensation and minimum treatment that ensure travellers are well treated and that for the airlines, in the words of parliamentary secretary McCrimmon, “ it’s not worth your while … to treat people this way”.
  • Proactive disclosure by airlines of a consumers’ right to compensation and minimum treatment;
  • Regular reviews to ensure that regulations and compensation levels remain appropriate;
  • Airline performance reporting with respect to the handling of passengers and luggage should be made public regularly. Sunshine is after all the best disinfectant.

We will be participating in the regulation-making process to make sure the consumer interest continues to be heard loud and clear. In order for Canadians to judge the new system a success, we must get this right.

The average middle-class passenger in this country, who also happens to be our customer, does not typically have the protections that come with premium status or full fare tickets. This legislation, if the accompanying regulations get it right, will help them most of all.

We urge this committee to stay engaged even beyond these hearings, to make sure the eventual system is one that works well for all Canadian air passengers.

Thank you, and I’d be pleased to take any questions.