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Canada's 4 biggest airlines offer their version of passenger bill of rights  May 05, 2009

Canada's four largest airlines are proposing their own passenger bill of rights to counter a private member's bill that calls for stiff penalties on airlines that cancel or delay flights.

Air Canada, Air Canada Jazz, WestJet Airlines Ltd. and Air Transat presented their proposed regulations to the Canadian Transportation Agency on April 24.

The Harper government in September introduced its own set of regulations for the airlines — none of which is legally binding. The airlines' April proposal, which would legally compel companies to follow the terms, "very closely mirrors" the government's voluntary regulations, said Marc Comeau, spokesman for the CTA.

Among the airlines' rules — known as tariffs — is a regulation stipulating that passengers would be entitled to meal vouchers if they were delayed for four hours or more.

The airlines would also pay for passenger accommodations if flights were delayed overnight and would allow travellers to disembark from flights if they were delayed on the tarmac for more than 90 minutes. The airlines would not be held responsible for delays caused by inclement weather.

If approved, the regulations would give the CTA broad authority over enforcement of the rules. Travellers who felt an airline company had not lived up to the terms of the bill could contact the CTA, which would field complaints. Travellers could also complain to the CTA if they felt any tariffs were unreasonable.

The CTA takes 45 days to review the tariffs, meaning the earliest the rules could come into effect is June 8.

Maloway bill imposes stiffer fees

The private member's bill authored by Manitoba NDP MP Jim Maloway would subject airlines to more significant financial penalties for delayed or cancelled flights that would apply even in the event of poor weather. It will be debated in Parliament on Thursday

If the bill is approved, customers delayed on a plane for more than an hour while still on the runway would be entitled to receive compensation of $500 for each additional hour they were detained.

Travellers who were bumped from a flight to a destination more than 3,500 kilometres away could claim as much as $1,200. Airlines that failed to announce cancellations or delays within 10 minutes of becoming aware of them could be fined $1,000.

The bill also requires airlines to disclose the full cost of flights in advertised prices.

George Petsikas, the president of the National Airlines Council of Canadians, a lobby group that represents the airlines, told that some of Maloway's proposed penalties were "outlandish" given the current economic climate. In the short to medium term, the extra costs would unavoidably be passed on to consumers, he said.

"The compensation requirements are grossly punitive and do not recognize the cost/revenue environment that air carriers face today," he said in a letter to MPs urging them to not support the bill. "In the current economic downturn, airlines are already struggling to provide service to their customers."

The airlines' proposed tariffs are "balanced and effective," Petsikas said.

"They're certainly trying to pre-empt the [Maloway] bill or to deliver their own bill, but you have to keep in mind that the airlines do have a point," said Bruce Bishins, president of the Canadian branch of the Association of Retail Travel Agents.

Among the issues that need to be addressed are some of the fees that airline companies would have to pay out under the Maloway bill.

Many foreign carriers that operate flights to Canada would also be obligated to abide by the Maloway regulations, Bishins said, which could cause conflicts given that a lot of those carriers might have to already abide by European rules.

'Too little too late'

Maloway called the airlines' tariffs "too little too late" on Monday.

"Currently, we have a terrible situation with people having flights to Mexico that they can't go on ... and these very same airlines are refusing to give people their money back," he told CBC News.

Canadian travellers bound for Mexico have had their flights cancelled by Air Canada or WestJet amid fears of the spread of swine flu. Options for these travellers "are thin," Bishins said.

"The passenger has the right to choose an alternate destination or travel at a later date, and this is completely unfair," he said.

Bishins singled out WestJet as a "shining examples of doing things right," saying the airline was offering passengers full refunds.

One passenger, Joanne Redeker, who returned to Calgary early from her vacation in Mexico, said WestJet was trying to reimburse her but said that wouldn't make up for having her holiday cut short.

"I won't get my vacation back," she said.

Canada's 4 biggest airlines offer their version of passenger bill of rights
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