Canada’s airlines are mounting a last-minute push to delay the July 1 launch of a new passenger-rights regime that promises to compensate customers for long delays and overbooked flights.
The new rules outline specific dollar amounts that passengers must receive as compensation from airlines when they face delays that are clearly under the control of the air carrier, meaning delays related to outside factors – such as the weather – would be exempt.
The National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents Air Canada, Air Transat and Westjet Airlines Ltd, is among the many organizations urging federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau to delay the new rules.
The council’s president, Massimo Bergamini, said it appears Mr. Garneau’s deadline is inspired by a political desire to deliver on a promise.
“It’s happening because there’s an election,” he told The Globe and Mail. “Singling out the air carriers will not improve the air travel experience.”
The Transport Minister, however, appears to be sticking with the timeline.
“We are determined to bring Canadian travellers these long overdue rights and are working very hard to do so as quickly as possible,” Mr. Garneau said in a statement. The minister’s office provided a list of meetings, surveys and written submissions received from stakeholder groups as evidence of the consultations that have already occurred in preparation for the new rules.
The airlines have convinced other groups connected to Canada’s aviation sector – including Toronto’s Pearson airport, the Calgary International Airport and Unifor – to join the letter writing effort.
“Potential cost impacts are in the hundreds of millions, our ability to grow jobs in this economically important sector could be severely impeded and, more importantly, we are deeply concerned that jobs will be lost,” Unifor national president Jerry Dias wrote in a letter dated Feb. 19. “Rushing implementation of these regulations to July 1st is not realistic.”
The union, which represents front-line workers at Canada’s airports, is concerned that potential problems with the new system will happen during the peak summer travel season.
Ferio Pugliese, a senior vice-president with Air Canada, said in an interview that industry needs more time to prepare. He noted that airlines already have similar compensation policies in place and warned that pushing ahead with the July 1 start date will likely drive up costs and ultimately ticket prices.
“We are not the enemy. We exist because of the customer,” he said. “If we’re going to put regulations in place to help even further protect customers, let’s make sure we do it in a fashion that’s informed. And right now, we don’t believe it’s very informed.”
Mr. Garneau introduced the passenger bill of rights as part of a broader piece of transportation legislation in May, 2017. The legislation received Royal Assent a year later. The government then published detailed regulations in December outlining specific compensation levels that would apply in specific situations. For instance, large carriers would be required to compensate a passenger with $400 for a delay of between three and six hours. The amount would rise to $700 for a delay over six hours and $1,000 if the delay is longer than nine hours.
For passengers who are denied boarding because a flight has been oversold, the rules call for $900 in compensation for a delay under six hours and up to $2,400 if a delay exceeds nine hours.
However, those regulations are not the final version. After reviewing feedback, the government must still publish the final version of the regulations, which has not yet happened.
The airlines say that does not leave them with enough time to make the required policy changes and related booking software updates in place by July 1.
Hillary Marshall, vice-president of stakeholder relations and communications for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, said the group representing Pearson airport will also be sending a letter to Mr. Garneau.
“The carriers approached us with concerns about the implementation time,” she said. “We support their efforts to ask Transport Canada to take more time to allow industry to make sure the passenger bill of rights is property implemented.”
Reid Fiest, a spokesman for the Calgary Airport Authority, said the airport has also written to Mr. Garneau.
“We believe if implementation is rushed, costs for airlines will increase, which would lead to higher fares being passed onto Canadians,” he said.
Consumer advocate Gabor Lukacs, founder and co-ordinator of Air Passenger Rights, said he’s surprised the airlines are opposing the new rules. Mr. Lukacs said in his opinion, consumers will often be worse off under the new rules when they seek compensation for delays.
“The proposed rules make things worse for Canadian travellers, that’s rather clear,” he said. “Although they provide some bombastic numbers, the conditions for getting compensation are so hard to meet that people, in practice, will virtually never seen any money.”