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Ottawa’s air travellers’ bill of rights is just a small first step

Air Canada travellers wait at the check-in area at Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport in Montreal.

OLIVIER JEAN/REUTERS

Transport Minister Marc Garneau had some good news this week for airline passengers who have ever been bumped, abused, delayed, stranded on a tarmac or separated from their luggage.

In other words, virtually everyone.

Mr. Garneau is promising an air passengers' rights regime within months that he says will set clear minimum service requirements. Travellers will know their rights and when they're entitled to compensation.

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It's long overdue, and it almost certainly won't be enough.

Flying has become a pain to endure. Former U.S. transportation secretary Mary Peters lamented in 2007 that people look forward to air travel about as much as going to the dentist. "Chances are the dentist will be a more pleasant experience," she suggested.

The United States brought in a Passenger Bill of Rights in 2009, and toughened it up two years later. Similar measures have been in place in Europe for more than 15 years.

U.S. travellers are now entitled to certain basic rights, including cash compensation of up to four times the ticket price for bumped flights caused by overbooking (the amount depends on the rescheduled arrival time), no hidden fees, guaranteed refunds for lost bags and notification of all flight changes.

Airlines must also return passengers to the terminal after a plane has been stuck on the tarmac for three hours, and must provide water, food, medical care and bathroom access while a plane is grounded. And travellers have 24 hours after they book a ticket to make any changes, before penalty fees kick in.

Extensive data on airline performance now being collected by U.S. authorities suggest that there is still much work to do. Major airlines routinely cancel 2 per cent of their flights.

Many run late an average of 30 per cent of the time across their vast networks, and some flights are late more often than they're on time. Tarmac delays that last hours remain a recurring problem.

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And forget about problems related to extreme weather. Airlines generally get a free pass on that one.

Mr. Garneau, a former astronaut, has said only that Canada will "take lessons" from what other countries have done. But he added an important caveat: Rights granted to travellers must not put "undue burden" on carriers or lessen competition.

It's not clear how granting rights to all travellers, regardless of what airline they use, might lessen competition.

The "undue burden" line is troubling. The main reason that flying is so much like a visit to the dentist is precisely because it has become a burden on passengers.

Everyone has their favourite grievances – inexplicably long security wait times, chronically poor communication about delays, cramped seats, inadequate storage for carry-ons, high fees for what were once basic needs, and understaffed check-in desks and reservation lines.

It's hard to imagine another service where the quality of the experience has fallen so far so fast. Forget being pampered. Flying is about surviving – like making it through a high-school bus trip uninjured.

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Mr. Garneau is doing some of the right things, guided by a sweeping review of Transport Canada's activities by former federal cabinet minister David Emerson released earlier this year.

The Emerson report was far clearer than Mr. Garneau about what should be in a bill of rights. It called for harmonization with U.S. and European policies, giving Transport Canada the power to investigate systemic problems, and resources to collect timely data on airline service performance.

Mr. Garneau also moved tentatively this week to give Canadians more choice in air travel by loosening foreign ownership restrictions – another Emerson report recommendation.

Pending legislation, foreigners will be allowed to own 49 per cent of Canadian carriers, up from 25 per cent, in a move he says will help fledgling domestic discount airlines.

He could have gone much further. More choice is the key to better service. There is no good policy reason why foreigners should still be barred from owning outright a Canadian domestic carrier.

A landmark 2008 federal review of competition policy in Canada found "no evidence that foreign-controlled airlines would be any more or less inclined than Canadian firms in servicing Canadian routes."

More competition and more foreign capital would go a long way to improving choice, and service.

It might even make a passenger bill of rights unnecessary.

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