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Airlines demand 'shared accountability' for flight disruptions

Call for travel accountability

The National Airlines Council has released a report calling on Ottawa to implement "shared accountability" in aviation, with the goal of smoother travel — and across-the-board responsibility for flight disruptions.

Released Thursday, the proposals come precisely three weeks after the House of Commons tabled legislation to overhaul passenger rights, and five days before a Senate committee hearing on the bill.

Post-pandemic travel turmoil last summer and over the winter holidays prompted the Liberal government to lay out sweeping changes to Canada's passenger rights charter in an effort to tighten compensation loopholes and toughen penalties.

The airlines council recommendations include imposing service standards on industry players, which range from airports to Nav Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency.

"They may have internal key performance indicators ... but there's no accountability for them. There's certainly no public reporting on them," council CEO Jeff Morrison said in a phone interview.

"Even if, let's say, an airport had a particular standard of getting your luggage through its luggage belt in a certain period of time, we don't know what that is."

If those service standards are not upheld and cause flight disruptions, travellers should be entitled to compensation doled out from a pool that is funded by transport "actors" — other than airlines — and overseen by the Canadian Transportation Agency, the report says.

"We don't want to create a complex kind of system," Morrison said, acknowledging that he's open to alternatives to avoid a tangle of red tape for customers.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has noted that the federal budget mandates data sharing and thus broader accountability in the aviation sector, but he has also defended placing the financial weight of compensation squarely on carriers.

"The customer paid the airlines to receive a service. Therefore the airlines are responsible for delivering that service,'' Alghabra told reporters last month.

Other council recommendations include allowing the transportation agency to conduct compliance audits and requiring organizations to spell out the reasons for service disruptions in real time.

Last month the industry group, which represents four of the country's biggest airlines including Air Canada and WestJet, took issue with the Liberals' proposed changes to the Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR). The council warned that the bill's potential scrapping of safety concerns as an exception to compensation requirements could threaten customer safety.

If passed, the reforms will put the onus on airlines to show a flight disruption is caused by safety concerns or reasons outside their control, with specific examples to be drawn up by the Canadian Transportation Agency as a list of exceptions around compensation.

John Gradek, a lecturer at McGill University's aviation management program, said there is no existing model for the system of shared financial accountability presented in the council report, calling the notion "laudable" but "unworkable."

"It gets to be really complicated," he said.

"But most importantly, the airlines when they build their schedule have to make sure that all of the players that are in the aviation system are signing off on the schedule that's being presented," he said.

"You look at the root cause of summer '22, and it was the airlines that overscheduled it," Gradek said. "The airlines said, 'Screw it, we'll fly whatever we want'" — despite labour shortages among security screeners, border officers, ground handlers, pilots and flight attendants.

Nonetheless, Morrison of the airline council, who said he met this week with the transport minister, expressed confidence that Alghabra was open to further reforms in the spirit of the report, and that more changes may be in the pipeline.

"You can put in place all the APPRs in the world you want. But ultimately the whole point of this shared accountability concept is that we want to improve the overall air travel system," Morrison said.

Transport Canada recently wrapped up a month-long consultation on the future of the country's air travel system. Its themes ran the gamut from airport financing and rural connectivity to "holding air sector partners accountable through service standards."



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