Fed Report Targets Advocates

Consumer advocates are protesting a federal proposal to restrict complaints against airlines. The Transport Canada report appeared to target groups including one Halifax-based advocate who filed 14 complaints in three years.

“When I look at how bitterly Air Canada and Air Transat have complained about me, I take this as a compliment,” said Dr. Gabor Lukács of the group Air Passenger Rights. “It means I’ve done a good job. How many consumer advocates get targeted to the point they want to change the law?”

The statutory review of the Canada Transportation Act recommended regulations be rewritten to limit complaints to individuals personally affected by service issues. Lukács filed 14 complaints on behalf of passengers denied boarding, refused compensation for delays and other grievances at Air Canada, Air Transat, British Airways, Delta, Porter Airlines, SkyGreece Airlines, Sunwing Airlines Inc., United Air Lines and WestJet.

Lukács has also acted as lead plaintiff in twelve separate court applications against airlines and regulators at the Canadian Transportation Agency. “Those people who were there had absolutely no qualifications or expertise in consumer issues, especially not in air passenger rights,” he said.

The review by former industry minister David Emerson lamented the current complaints-based system at the Agency. “The status quo is untenable,” Emerson wrote in his report Pathways: Connecting Canada’s Transportation System To The World. “It creates higher transaction costs and uncertainty for carriers; a lack of consistency, transparency and predictability for passengers; and an overload of complaints by a very small number of well-meaning and highly motivated individuals seeking to strengthen passenger rights one case at a time, in the absence of a strong industry-wide code.”

Lukács was not cited by name. The Consumers’ Association of Canada said the call for restricting advocacy complaints was surprising. “I’m absolutely astounded to find this,” said Bruce Cran, Association president.

“They want to eliminate the people that do the most for consumers – the consumer advocates and groups that identify problems and take them up and make legal challenges,” Cran said. “It’s a further demonstration of the anti-consumer attitude that the Agency has had.”

“It’s very disconcerting to have this happen,” said Cran. “I’m very impressed that someone like Dr. Lukács is there to take on the airline structure and passenger rights, and now they want to cut that off and they want to cut us off, because we’re the only other group that ever speaks on this issue in any fashion.”

Pathways did recommend that Parliament adopted a uniform Passenger Bill Of Rights mandating compensation for passengers who suffer flight delays, lost luggage, denial of boarding and other service disruptions. MPs have repeatedly rejected the proposal, though the Transportation Agency notes Canada remains the only industrialized country without such a bill.

The Transport Canada report also urged that regulators compel Canadian airlines to disclose confidential data on flight delays and other service issues, similar to a U.S. requirement of the Bureau of Transportation. The Transportation Agency estimates it receives only a fraction of actual complaints – fewer than 400 a year at Air Canada and WestJet, though the airlines carry some 40 million passengers annually.

By Dale Smith

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