Friday, November 20, 2009

The sad story of the passengers' bill of rights

This is a story about a proposed airline passenger’s bill of rights. It suggests, most of all, that those at the top of government aren’t serving the public. They’re catering to the needs of powerful special interests.
The story starts in 2008. Liberal MP Gerry Byrne prepared a motion calling on the government to introduce an airline passenger’s bill of rights. Travellers would be guaranteed remedies for lost bags, unreasonable delays or overbooked flights. The model was similar to protection in Europe.
Politically, it’s a winner. Most people fortunate enough to be able to fly have had bad experiences. Sometimes, the airline has responded admirably. But sometimes, not.
MPs from all parties professed to support the idea, including then transport minister Lawrence Cannon.
But behind the scenes, his office was pleading with the airlines to launch a lobby campaign to defeat the motion, according to documents obtained by Canwest News Service.
While Cannon was promising to bring in a travellers’ bill of rights, a key political staffer in his office was telling the airlines the Conservatives really wanted it killed.
Lobby the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois, Paul Fitzgerald e-mailed the airlines. “I don’t want us to be forced into regulating passenger protection issues.”
It’s creepily dishonest. The minister is pretending to stand up for passengers while his staff is rallying the industry to kill protection.
The government could legitimately oppose such consumer protection. The airlines argued safety would be compromised. Pilots might take off in dangerous conditions if they feared their employer would have to compensate passengers for delays.
More realistically — I hope, as a passenger who relies on those pilots — the Conservatives could argue that protection is not needed because market forces ensure airlines don’t abuse customers, because they would lose business.
But that’s not what happened. The minister claimed the protection was necessary and he supported the measures.
It gets worse.
The motion passed in Parliament with the support of all parties, and the government set about drafting the protection.
Canwest News Service filed a freedom of information request for files on the process. Usually, documents are censored to the point of uselessness. This time, apparently by mistake, the full documents were released.
They showed the minister’s office — despite concerns from non-political Transport Department staff — let the airlines play a major role in drafting the measures. Company executives reviewed several drafts of Flight Rights Canada, as the initiative came to be called. They proposed changes and approved the final version.
The airline bosses even got to approve Cannon’s speech launching the program in advance.
It was sensible to involve the airlines in the process. They can provide useful information on the effects of any passenger protection.
But the government didn’t seek input from consumer associations or the travel industry or groups that could speak for business travellers. They catered to the industry, not the public.
The department staff also told the minister there was no money to let travellers know about their rights.
But he went ahead and read the industry-approved announcement, promising an information campaign that has never happened.
The government has spent a total of $3,640 to let airline passengers across Canada know about their rights.
So, to recap, MPs decided airline passengers needed some basic protection if flights were cancelled without good reason or their bags vanished.
The government pretended to go along, while working behind the scenes with the airlines to try and sabotage the initiative. Their loyalty was to the big corporations.
The minister’s office was attentive to the needs of the airline companies. The public interest was a problem to be managed, not a priority.
This isn’t a Liberal-Conservative thing. I have no confidence that the cozy relationships between the powerful depend on party labels. Mostly, it’s a sad example of how little the interests of voters really matter to those in power.
Footnote: The government’s failure to respect the 2008 motion brought a new private member’s bill from Manitoba NDP MP Jim Maloway to provide travellers with protection modelled on the European Union’s consumer protection for passengers. The Conservatives oppose the protection.