Skip to main content

Massimo Bergamini is president and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents Canada’s largest air carriers: Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat and Jazz Aviation

Last month, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) kicked off its cross-country listening tour on air-passenger rights.

Along the way, some media outlets framed the consultations with blaring headlines such as this one from the Radio-Canada Winnipeg affiliate “Le cauchemar aérien des Canadiens aura-t-il une fin?” – will Canadians’ airline nightmare ever end?

Anyone following this story would be forgiven for thinking the airline industry was in the throes of a catastrophic market failure. The opposite is true. Globally and domestically, trend lines point to surging capacity and lower base fares – indicators of a healthy, competitive environment.

Across Canada, some 350,000 people board planes and embark on one of the more than 15,000 flights that take off and land at Canadian airports every day. That’s almost the equivalent of the population of Toronto – every woman, man and child – boarding a plane in Canada, every week.

For the vast majority of these air travellers, the flight is as it should be; pleasant and uneventful, thanks to the efforts of tens of thousands of people working in airlines, airports, air-traffic control, security, national governments and international agencies.

A generation or two ago, it was the pace of progress in passenger air travel and the economic, social and political vistas it opened that fuelled news stories. But the airline industry and the complex ecosystem in which it operates have become victims of their own success: with pleasant and uneventful being the norm, it’s the outliers that generate the headlines.

This may help explain why more than 60 countries have some sort of aviation-specific passenger-rights regime in place, with Canada poised to join the club once the CTA completes its work.

Many passenger-rights regimes have this in common: they were framed as virtuous consumer-protection measures, required to protect air travellers from airlines – or as federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said: “To ensure travellers are treated like people and not numbers.”

. Creating policy in response to outliers is an unusually imperfect and risky business. That is why urban planners generally do not develop growth plans based on the probability of 100- or 500-year weather events.

That is why we want Canada to choose a different flight path.

Air travel is too complex and the air travel experience too personal to try to set a baseline universal definition of good or bad by government fiat.

Heading back to the gate after a prescribed period of time on the tarmac might seem like a great idea for some; but a terrible idea for others who would prefer waiting a little longer for weather to clear and for a green light from air-traffic control, if it meant getting home that night.

Others still, might think that they have a right to air fares free of government fees and taxes that have nothing to do with their air travel experience.

Tempting as it may be for governments to have an answer for every emerging issue, complex issues are just that. Dumbing-down problems or solutions doesn’t work.

If complex problems could be fixed by government fiat, Ottawa would have passed legislation to fix the Phoenix pay system.

Air travel experiences, whether great, good, bad or indifferent, are the outcome of hundreds of interactions and decisions, direct and indirect, made historically and in real-time by both passengers and thousands of people working in dozens of organizations and agencies.

Each has a role to play in that flight pushing back and getting airborne on time.

Delays caused by bottlenecks anywhere in the aviation ecosystem can ripple across an ocean and affect flights and travellers a continent away.

These bottlenecks can be caused by any number of factors: weather, air-traffic control or security and border screening throughput capacity; mechanical or IT breakdowns – even government regulations, of which there are hundreds.

The right approach to improving the air travel experience would have been is a government-industry partnership to address policy obstacles and capacity issues, foster greater consumer awareness and encourage competition and innovation.

Unfortunately, that train left the station with Bill C-49.

Bill C-49 missed the mark by putting a black hat on airlines and failing to recognize the complexity of Canada’s aviation ecosystem and the role that each part plays in the passenger experience.

The CTA now has the opportunity to correct this, at least in part by taking a wide-angle lens to passenger rights and considering the impact of its proposed regulations on the aviation ecosystem.

Fixing the system will have to wait.

Interact with The Globe