Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 20, 2009

How About an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights?

Ever feel you’ve been left hanging by your fingertips?

And, by the way, here’s another wild and wacky idea. How about an air travel ombudsman?

The age-old rule of caveat emptor still holds true of course, but given the nature and plethora of marketplaces that we all have to deal with on a daily basis, it gets a bit — shall we say wearying — to constantly have to be on your guard as to whether you are getting fair value for your buck…. or euro … or yen.

Enter the world of consumer advocacy. Super Traveller to the rescue! Maybe… Mind you, governments have been in the “business” of protecting consumer rights for a long time, especially when it comes to products such as food and medicine.

But what about the gigantic and enormously diversified travel marketplace? How do you know if you are getting “a good deal?” What are your rights as a consumer when something — God forbid — goes wrong?

A friend just returned from a short vacation in Florida; a relatively simple trip. However, about 10 minutes before the return flight was to depart, the passengers were informed that there would be an eight-hour delay because the weather in Toronto (her home) was the pits. We are talking ice storms. What fool would want to fly into that mess? Well, they ended up spending 12 hours in the small Florida airport waiting for a three-hour flight home. They couldn’t leave the airport because the flight, in theory, was imminent. Now, bad weather where y’all are going is an act of God or something is it not? So, it wasn’t the airline’s fault. Right? But what were the passengers’ rights? This particular group of homeward-bound snowbirds were told that they just had to sit it out. Mind you they were told to do so nicely. But nothing was offered to mollify them while they waited; no glass of wine, no baloney sandwiches, no reflexology. You wish!

But this was a relatively simple airline delay.

She’s mad as hell and isn’t going to put up with it anymore

As our national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is still (I hope) considered by most Canadians to be a voice of authority. Historically, we have always looked to the CBC for the straight, unadulterated facts. CBC Radio especially has been especially good in this regard. As a nation of 33 million people we even have our own book club on CBC Radio. It’s called Canada Reads.

Michael Enright is one of our most respected and authoritative radio hosts. In a recent show on Sunday Edition, Michael devoted part of the program to the issue of airline travel. If you ever are walking by the CBC in downtown Toronto and Michael is just on his way home, you will recognize him instantly. He is the dapper guy with the neat goatee, the distinctive glasses, and the very cool bowtie. Tell him we said hello.

But Michael’s recent show is worth listening to. (See below for the link.) Here’s how the show’s production staff summed up this recent program.

[Segment one]

“In this hour, the cost of flying. It’s that time of year in Canada — it’s cold, it’s dark and it feels like winter just might not end this year. We dream of taking flights of fancy, and many of us do. But navigating the ins and outs of getting away from it all is far from easy. Sometimes we end up paying less to fly to the tropics than we pay to fly within our own country. But more often, we aren’t so lucky.

Sometimes we pay twice as much, or more, than the guy sitting in the seat next to us. And then, an airline decides to offer rock-bottom prices, like West Jet did on Thursday. For one day only, they offered one-way flights between Canada’s major cities for as low as $12, up to $69.

This hour, we’ll speak to an expert about how airlines come up with their prices. We’ll also have the low down on frequent flyer points: how they work, when you should book, and what you should know. We’ll finish our journey with a conversation with the President of Air Canada. But first, we go to the U.S. where passengers want airlines to do more for them and the movement for an airline passengers’ bill of rights is sweeping across the States.

As more and more people shell out money to fly the friendly skies, they’re becoming vocal about the kind of service they want. Enter the US-based Coalition for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights. It was formed by hundreds of passengers who were stranded at Austin International Airport in December 2006. The coalition now has 22,000 members. Kate Hanni is leading the charge for an Airline Passenger’s Bill of Rights. The mother of two put her life as a successful real-estate agent in Napa Valley, California and occasional rock ‘n’ roll singer on hold to pursue the charge. Kate Hanni joins us from an NPR studio in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.”

[Segment two]

“The cost of air travel is ever changing. One day, you’ll pay a sky-high fare to get from point A to point B. The next, you’ll be lucky, and find a really low fare but don’t expect any frills. I recently saw an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Rome advertised for $199. I was amazed, considering it can cost more than $1,000 to fly to Victoria. I wondered how it could be cheaper to be drinking espresso near the Colosseum than to sip tea at the Empress Hotel.

To help explain this contrast in cost is Debra Ward — an airline analyst based in Ottawa. She was an independent observer for the federal government when Air Canada merged with Canadian Airlines. Her job was to review the effects of the restructuring in Canada and make recommendations for the future. So she knows the highs and lows of the airline industry. Debra Ward joins us from our Ottawa studio.”

To listen to the podcast of this Sunday Edition show, click here.

To visit the website of the Coalition for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, click here.

Not just an isolated event

As I was writing this piece, a Cubana Air flight was forced by bad weather to land in Ottawa, Canada as opposed to Montréal, its intended destination. For a number of reasons that have not yet been made clear, the passengers were not allowed to disembark. They were repeatedly told that a gate was not available. In fact they were kept on the plane for 12 hours. Food was non-existent and eventually the toilets were unusable. Passengers with cell phones called 911 but were told by the emergency authorities that they could do nothing for them, that it was an airport authority issue. Eventually someone called the police who eventually expedited the passengers release.

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