Air passenger protection is about to take off in Canada

Air travel is integral to modern life.  What was once a luxury enjoyed by the few has become much more affordable and routine.  We take to the skies to see family and friends, visit new places, attend events, get medical treatment, and do business. 

Most of the time, our flights go smoothly.  But when they don't, it can be very frustrating.  We often feel we have no control, and little information, as our plans are thrown into chaos. 

For some time, there's been talk of creating a "passenger bill of rights" in Canada.  Proponents pointed out that Europe and the United States already have regulations laying out passenger entitlements in a number of areas.

Last May, after a year of discussion and debate in Parliament, the Transportation Modernization Act came into force.  It gave the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), the country's longest-standing independent regulator and tribunal, a mandate to make regulations spelling out airlines' minimum obligations to passengers.

At the CTA, we knew Canadians would want to have their say on these new regulations.  We also knew they'd want to see the regulations in place without unnecessary delay.  To meet both expectations, we ran an intensive, three-month consultation process that gave the public and stakeholders multiple channels for providing information and ideas. 

We considered all the input submitted as we developed the regulations over the fall, and the proposed regulations are now ready for one last round of public feedback.  A plain language summary has been posted on the CTA's website, while the full draft text will be published in the Canada Gazette Part I on Saturday, December 22.

Canadians will have until February 20, 2019 to give feedback.  We'll then move as quickly as possible to consider this feedback and finalize the regulations, which are expected to come into force this summer. 

One of the most consistent messages we heard from travellers during our consultations was that they want meaningful communication from airlines.  Rights don't count for much if people don't realize they exist, and it's exasperating to sit in an airport during a flight delay not knowing when you'll reach your destination. The proposed regulations now require that airlines provide clear, concise information to passengers on their rights and on the status of their flights when there's a delay or cancellation.

They also set compensation levels for flight cancellations or delays by larger airlines – which transport more than nine out of ten air passengers – that are comparable to compensation levels in Europe, which is currently the global leader in this area.  Consistent with the provisions of the Transportation Modernization Act, the compensation will be owed to passengers for cancellations or delays that are due to factors within the control of the airline and not required for safety reasons.

The draft regulations establish even higher compensation for situations where an airline "bumps" someone from a flight against their will because of overbooking or any other reasons within its control.Although not common, forcing passengers present for boarding to change flights because of an airline's commercial choices is a practice Canadians dislike. The new regime is designed to make sure airlines make every effort to find volunteers willing to take a later flight if there are more passengers present for boarding than seats on the plane.

For smaller airlines -- which overwhelmingly serve northern and remote communities, or are in the fledgling ultra low-cost carrier sector -- the proposed compensation levels for flight cancellations or delays will be lower. These amounts recognize how financially fragile many of those airlines are, and how critical their survival is for the communities they serve.

Beyond compensation, the proposed regulations require that in the event of a tarmac delay at a Canadian airport, passengers be allowed to get off the plane after three hours if it's safe to do so.  This goes further than the rules in the US, which are currently the strongest in the world and set the disembarkation threshold at three hours for domestic flights and four hours for international flights.  But learning from US experience, the draft Canadian regulations also allow a one-time extension of up to 45 minutes if there's a good chance the flight will depart soon (for example, if the three hour mark is reached while the plane is being de-iced).

When it comes to lost or damaged bags, the draft regulations require that airlines apply the rules that already exist for international flights under the Montreal Convention to domestic flights, compensating passengers for the loss up to approximately $2100.  And they obligate airlines to refund any baggage fees paid by the traveller if a bag is lost or damaged.

These are just some of the topics covered by the regulations.

The goal, when all is said and done, is to land on a set of rules that, on balance, significantly improve passenger protection while taking account of airlines' operating realities. 

We're almost there.  Soon, when your flight's been cancelled, you're sitting in a plane on the tarmac, or your bag hasn't appeared, you'll have clear, consistent, fair rights as a passenger – and you'll be promptly informed of those rights and where you can turn if you don't think they're being respected. 

Air travel, which is so important to so many Canadians, is about to get better.
Scott Streiner, Chair and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Transportation Agency


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