When the Senate’s transport committee studied Bill C-49, the Transportation Modernization Act, stakeholders from across the country appeared before the committee and told us the bill just wasn’t good enough.
While the bill touched on a number of transportation issues, two in particular relate to the aviation sector. One directs the Canadian Transportation Agency to create an air passenger bill of rights.
While a bill of rights for passengers may be overdue, the devil is in the details. The committee found it problematic that the federal government thought it acceptable to set a time limit of three hours for a passenger to sit in an airplane on the tarmac before the airline had any obligation to provide information about the delay, let alone compensation — or even food and drink.
Senators found that to be too long and, in my opinion, rightly amended the bill to cap tarmac delays at 90 minutes before offering compensation. In my view, it strikes a better balance between the business requirements of airlines — which are often victims of circumstances beyond their control — and the needs of customers.
Witnesses from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the Council of Canadians with Disabilities expressed grave concerns about the effect of lengthy tarmac delays on people with disabilities, who already face significant challenges with regard to accessing air transportation services.
That’s why, in an observation we added to our report amending the bill, we encouraged the transportation agency to ensure it includes representatives from disability advocacy groups when it starts to draft the promised air passenger bill of rights.
To ensure that there is some mechanism to review the passenger bill of rights after it is drafted, we added language ordering that the bill of rights be regularly reviewed by a Senate or House of Commons committee — or both — and that the committees submit a report to Parliament.
Our committee also wants to make it easier to hold airlines to account.
The Canada Transportation Act already contains language that allows the transportation agency to force an airline to compensate passengers if, for instance, the airline charges higher prices than what it has published, or if it applies unreasonable or discriminatory terms of carriage.
The federal government wants to restrict the ability of Canadians to make claims against airlines that violate the bill of rights by only allowing a person adversely affected to do so.
Our committee amended the bill to allow anyone to make such claims — citizen consumer advocates like Gabor Lukacs have filed dozens of complaints with the transportation agency and forced airlines to offer better service to passengers. Consumer advocates should be encouraged, not muzzled.
We also moved to increase scrutiny of joint venture provisions. If airlines want to share responsibility for a route or co-ordinate aspects of their operations, our committee wants the government to explicitly consider the arrangement’s effect on things like competition, air service and safety, the environment and passengers.
For the sake of transparency, another amendment orders the government to make public a summary of any arrangement between airlines within 10 days of the airlines notifying the government of their intentions. The amendment would also give the public a chance to weigh in on the airlines’ plans and force the government to review the arrangement every two years.
All of our amendments must now be considered by the House. It will be interesting to see MPs’ reactions.
From the moment we received Bill C-49 we were under great pressure to review it quickly. Time was of the essence, we were told. Delay was not an option.
We didn’t delay. We rolled up our sleeves and got to work. And when Canadians came to us and told us that this bill was flawed, or wrong, or didn’t go far enough, we listened.
As chair of the committee, I was immensely proud to see senators stand up for the groups who asked us to represent them in Parliament.
I suspect there will be a lot of talk about unelected senators interfering with the will of the House when MPs begin to debate our amendments. They would do well to remember that these are not “Senate amendments” per se — they are amendments that Canadian voters, taxpayers and workers asked us to make on their behalf.
Our witnesses’ thoughtful and substantive contributions helped us to improve the bill, not just for air travellers but also for farmers, rail workers and minority language speakers. Senators from all the political groupings put forward amendments to support them.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau now has a choice.
He can help pass our amendments quickly and turn this bill into law.
Or he can delay or block our amendments — and alienate the many people who turned to the Senate to improve Bill C-49.
His decision should be easy.
Senator David Tkachuk represents Saskatchewan and chairs the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications.
This article appeared in the April 23, 2018 edition of The Hill Times.