Time for Air Passengers’ Bill of Rights to take flight in Canada

Passengers at Toronto Pearson Airport
Passengers at Toronto Pearson Airport

The thought of sitting on board an idle airplane for hours, unable to leave as time ticks by, food runs out and water is distributed in thimble-sized cups is enough to drive the most ardent passengers off a cliff.

The world of air travel is fraught with problems, especially here in Canada where harsh weather can shut down airports, cancel flights and delay passengers at the drop of a hat. Still, some believe that the government should be more involved in protecting passengers beset by travel nightmares.

A debate over passenger rights has exploded since hundreds of people were caught in limbo during a Toronto snowstorm earlier this month. Their flight was delayed for 16 hours, and much of that time was spent trapped on board the aircraft as crews refueled, de-iced and were eventually replaced by fresh staff members.

[ Related: Canada 'procrastinating' on improving air passenger rights ]

The passengers were provided with some snacks and water during their 13 hours on board the Sunwing Vacations aircraft. Once they deplaned they received $25 food vouchers and offered $150 rebates on a future flight. It was more than the passengers were legally promised in their ticket’s small print.

Passengers who felt they were unfairly treated can also file a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency.

There is no further protection for passengers left neglected or abused by the air travel industry, no federal control ensuring those who are put out are made square.

How would you expect to be treated in such a case? And do you think the government should have a say in the protections and reimbursement you receive?

Earlier this month, the NDP introduced a private members bill that would create legal protection for air passengers.

The Air Passengers' Bill of Rights, Bill C-459, aims to protect customers from being treated unfairly, from the moment they buy a ticket to the moment they arrive at their destination.

[ Related: Toronto’s snowstorm sees 16-hour delay at Pearson Airport ]

Bill C-459 would implement the following key protections:

  • meal and reimbursement in the case of flight cancellation

  • food and refreshments in the case of delays, as well as accommodation in some cases

  • fresh air, food, water and bathroom access when trapped on the tarmac

  • compensation of $100 per passenger for every hour trapped on the tarmac, up to the cost of the ticket

  • compensation when denied access to a flight in the case of overbooking.

Like the European legislation it is based on, the bill would forgive airlines in the cases of extraordinary circumstances, including flights delayed and cancelled by the weather.

The United States also introduced its own Airline Passenger Bill of Rights in 2010. It ensures any flight stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours will allow passengers to deplane. Airlines that fail to do so will be fined $27,500 per passenger. Food, water and bathroom access must also be made available within two hours.

Canada has considered the move in the past, most recently in 2009 when NDP MP Jim Maloney introduced the idea. This time around, it is NDP MP Jose Nunez-Melo pushing the cause.

The private member’s bill is unlikely to be passed by the Conservative majority government, but that shouldn’t take away from its value.

There are few frequent travellers who don’t have a horror story they can share, or a moment when they felt abused and dismissed by a major airline. Lost luggage, missed connections caused by delays, overbooked flights. They all happen.

And, yes, most often the airlines step up and take care of their customers. But there is no guarantee. And what is more, the onus should not be on the passengers to demand fair treatment. The onus should be on the airlines.

An Air Passengers' Bill of Rights would ensure airlines know what is at stake when passengers suffer.