More oversight needed in airline debacles

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Air Transat vice-president of corporate affairs Christophe Hennebelle speaks with the media outside Canadian Transportation agency hearings, Thursday, August 31, 2017 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

There was a time where governments and airlines appeared to care about the travelling public.

The federal government created an Air Travel Complaints Commissioner in August 2000. He described his first six months on the job as “hell” because carriers, especially (and not surprisingly,) Air Canada wasn’t cooperating with his investigations of complaints of shoddy service. Commissioner Bruce Hood said two years into his new job that “there are horror stories...but I think it’s getting better.”

But 17 years later, we know how wrong a prediction that was. His office vanished sometime after 2004, and any trace of his office has been scrubbed from the federal government websites.

Anyone who’s taken to the skies will know that it’s generally not a pleasant experience. Being bumped from flights, endless inexplicable delays and shoddy service are the norm, not the exception. And Air Canada is far from being the worst carrier. All of them south of the border are bad.

This week, in a rare hearing, the Canadian Transport Agency got an earful about the horrors arising from two Air Transat planes suffering a five and six-hour tarmac delay in Ottawa on July 31, 2017. It’s quite the brouhaha. Passengers sitting in sweltering heat, tempers rising, a stench permeating the plane, the plane running out of toilet paper and people having panic attacks.

They offered passengers a $400 credit for future use. I can’t imagine any passenger wanting to fly Air Transat again.

The hearing is pretty much a circus with everyone in authority passing the buck. Ottawa International Airport Authority said the provision of fuel, water and food to passengers is not the responsibility of the airport. Besides, the airline or its ground contractors never asked for help.

The air crew denied much of the evidence of passengers.

Air Transat appeared to blame the airport. The captains of the two flights being investigated also passed the buck citing “circumstances beyond their control” and that they kept being told over and over that it was only a 30-minute delay.

If it hadn’t been for a passenger calling 911, those planes may still be sitting on the tarmac.

Transportation Minister Marc Garneau recently tabled a bill to create a new passenger bill of rights and specify new compensation levels. The devil’s in the details and we don’t have them yet. They are to be worked out by the CTA.

Air passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs feels the CTA and the airlines are too cozy and has little faith in the agency, adding: “This makes absolutely no sense and this is nothing short of entrusting the fox guarding the hen house.”

The finger-pointing exercise like the one happening in Ottawa is cumbersome, expensive and an inefficient charade to explore complaints. The only ones smiling are the lawyers lining their pockets in a pretend court.

The transportation department, not the CTA, should be in charge of developing the bill of rights with clear penalties for airlines thumping their nose at it. Complaints that an airline has breached the bill should be investigated by an arms-length body with no ties to the CTA. Call it a commissioner, investigator or ombudsman. Give it teeth to force cooperation and compliance by airlines.

And give this person tenure so that the powerful airlines don’t squeeze the government to get rid of him when tough decisions are made. 

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