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Frustration, anticipation mark industry response to budget’s flight delay fixes

The federal government has air travel on its radar after laying out plans in its budget to speed up airport security screening and reduce flight delays, but industry and advocates remain skeptical.

The federal government has air travel on its radar after laying out plans in its budget to speed up airport security screening and reduce flight delays, but industry and advocates remain skeptical.

Tabled Tuesday by the Liberals following a year of travel turmoil, the budget promises $1.8 billion over five years for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) to improve passenger screening and shore up security at airports.

It also proposes a new rule requiring airlines and airports to share and report data as a way to cut delays and bolster co-ordination within the industry.

The budget further allows the transport minister to impose a charge on carriers to help cover the costs of resolving passenger complaints. In theory, the measure would incentivize carriers to brush up their service and thus reduce grievances against them.

Both steps would require additional legislation.

The aviation industry had a mixed response to the budget. Jeff Morrison, who heads the National Airlines Council of Canada, said it marks a “missed opportunity” to give the sector a boost and includes “no significant measures to improve the journey” for travellers.

“As one of the hardest hit industries during the COVID pandemic, NACC hoped for more concrete measures to strengthen the overall air travel system through investment to support infrastructure modernization,” he said in a statement from the organization that represents four of the country’s biggest carriers, including Air Canada and WestJet.

The $400-million-plus in rent that Ottawa collects each year from airports should be reinvested in them, he added.

Monette Pasher, head of the Canadian Airports Council, struck a lighter tone, saying the group is encouraged by what she called “incremental” steps to help the sector and improve the passenger experience.

“Airports across the country welcome these new measures,” she said in a statement. “However, there is still more work ahead to get airports fully down the runway to recovery.”

Sylvie De Bellefeuille, a lawyer with the advocacy group Option consommateurs, said “the devil is in the details” on data sharing, including the degree of public access and timely reporting.

“It really depends on what they will have to provide,” she said.

Currently, airlines share information on daily flight schedules and airplane types with airports.

“The airlines are basically saying that there’s a need to keep the passenger count confidential for commercial reasons,” said John Gradek, who teaches aviation management at McGill University. “But the airports really need that information in order for them to basically staff their various functions properly.

“Flight information is interesting, but it’s really more about passengers going through the building and making sure you’ve got enough counter staff or enough baggage staff or enough CATSA or CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency) staff,” he said.

The budget measures come after Transport Minister Omar Alghabra pledged in January to overhaul the country’s passenger rights charter following chaotic travel seasons during the summer and winter holidays brought on by soaring demand and poor weather.

The budget fleshed that plan out a little further Tuesday, stating that reforms this spring will align the air passenger rights regime with “leading international approaches” and streamline the complaints process.

European Union regulations — often considered the gold standard for passenger protections — require compensation for flight cancellations or significant delays, except under “extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided” such as extreme weather and war. In contrast, Canadian rules include a loophole that exempts airlines from passenger compensation when delays were caused by “reasons related to safety.”

The budget proposal to expedite air traveller complaints — the backlog now tops 42,000, according to the Canadian Transportation Agency — revolves largely around converting the regulator’s quasi-judicial adjudication process to “a mediation-arbitration process.”

The agency has told Parliament that about 97 per cent of the complaints it handles are resolved through informal processes rather than adjudication.

“The agency already seems to act not necessarily as a mediator but really as a facilitator in the process,” said De Bellefeuille, stating that the two roles are comparable. The regulator does not track the outcome of those resolutions, except for the three per cent that reach the tribunal stage, she noted.

“So we don’t know whether or not it’s in favour of the consumer, because we don’t have the details. Now, will that change?” she asked. “Again, it always depends on how it is how it is written.”

Air Passenger Rights advocacy group president Gabor Lukacs fretted that the mediation-arbitration reform will be “yet another way of creating the appearance that things are being resolved … while tossing out lots of good complaints — that’s my fear.”