A bill of rights for Canadian travellers would prevent problems like those experienced by Air Transat passengers forced to withstand uncomfortably warm conditions on a flight stuck on an Ottawa runway for six hours this week, the parliamentary secretary to Canada's Minister of Transport said Wednesday.
Karen McCrimmon said the legislation – Bill C-49 – could become a reality in 2018, and would give consumers a legitimate way to hold airlines accountable in cases of mistreatment.
"We're giving the consumer more teeth, to be able to say, 'no these are my rights, and I don't have to accept being treated this way,"' she said in an interview. "It makes it in the airline's best interest for this not to happen."
The importance of the bill was highlighted after an Air Transat flight from Brussels that was meant to land in Montreal diverted to Ottawa Monday due to bad weather. A passenger said the plane was grounded for six hours and the cabin grew very hot, with some people having trouble breathing. At one point, a passenger called 911, after which bottles of water were handed out.
The Canadian Transportation Agency said Wednesday that it has ordered Air Transat to explain the circumstances of the incident, as well as another tarmac delay involving the airline. The agency said it wanted to know whether the airline respected terms and conditions of carriage for international flights with respect to the treatment of passengers.
Air Transat has apologized to passengers involved in Monday's incident, and said airport staff were unable to provide loading bridges or stairs that would have allowed passengers to disembark or ground crews to replenish the aircraft's drinking water supply.
McCrimmon said the upcoming bill of rights would lay out the basic standards airlines must adhere to, as well as the compensation passengers are entitled to if airlines don't abide by the rules.
Currently, McCrimmon says Air Transat isn't obliged to compensate the passengers on the flight diverted to Ottawa.
"Right now there are no consequences for what happened on the ramp," she said. "The passengers, all they can do is complain about their situation. But there's no requirement for the airline to actually reimburse or credit them for what happened to them on the flight."
The bill will guarantee a passenger's access to basic necessities like water, climate-controlled cabins, and access to washrooms, McCrimmon said. It will also set guidelines for how passengers have to be accommodated if they are bumped off an over booked flight.
Travellers will also be protected from involuntary removal from an aircraft, such as the case of a doctor who was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight from Chicago in April in an incident that left him with cuts and a bloodied face.
One consumer protection group said such passenger rights legislation has been a long time coming, since most people now buy tickets directly from an airline – rather than an agent – and may not know everything about an airline's policies.
"What used to be a fairly consistent environment, is now fairly fragmented," said Ken Whitehurst of the Consumers Council of Canada. "Many aspects of travel and travel contracts were handled originally through travel agents ... so there's kind of a disconnect over the public understanding of who's responsible for what."
Some observers said, however, that the bill may not go far enough.
Gabor Lukacs, an air passenger rights advocate, noted that the Canadian Transportation Agency will be involved in working out the specifics of bill's regulations. He said the agency is too cosy with the airlines it is supposed to be policing.
"It's an empty shell," Lukacs said of the bill. "What particularly troubles me about this is that it gives the false impression that there is something being done, while actually nothing is being done."
Bill C-49 will also include changes to allow a larger percentage of foreign ownership of Canadian airlines, modernize rail transport with voice and video recorders and will include other changes to long-term investment in the freight rail sector.