Op Ed on Passenger Rights Regulations
By Massimo Bergamini
Responding to recent calls from Canadian air carriers, airports and even a leading Canadian labour union to postpone the July 1 launch of his passenger rights regulations, Transport Minister Marc Garneau told the CBC, “We’ve been working on this for over two years. I am anxious to get them out.”
If the minister’s impatience is understandable in the context of a looming general election, it is much less so if the goal is a passenger rights system that actually works.
And it’s not just Canadian air carriers warning that rushing implementation of his plan – which is yet to be finalized no less – will fail to achieve its intended goal of protecting consumers. IATA, which represents air carriers worldwide and Airlines for America (A4A) also called on the government to slow down and get it right.
Not only do the draft regulations lack the clarity needed by airlines to translate them into day-to-day commercial practices but they are often at odds with global airline operating realities.
This is not an idle consideration.
In practice it means that implementation is made more difficult and time consuming because of new systems and procedures that would be required. More important, it also means that unless the government addresses some of the more glaring problems with the regulations, in some cases they could actually make things worse for travelers.
Whatever time it took the government to get the legislation through Parliament and the regulations drafted does nothing to justify a rush to implement them before their more glaring problems are fixed or with little consideration for their impact on the commercial airline industry and the passengers it serves.
Confronted with such haste, it is good to reflect on the teachable moment that the federal government’s 2016 decision to move all federal payroll functions to the ill-fated Phoenix pay system provides.
The parallel between the rushed implementation of the Phoenix pay system and the rush by the federal government to implement its passenger rights regime is instructive — both involve undue haste in the face of a complex undertaking.
In the case of the Phoenix pay system federal employees are still paying the price. We don’t want our passengers and guests to pay the price for the minister’s impatience.
And why the rush anyway?
Is there an overriding rationale for July 1st beyond the obvious symbolism? Is air travel in Canada and globally in the throes of a market failure of such scope that exceptional measures are required immediately, even if not fully baked?
The answer is no.
Canadian air carriers move over 350,000 passengers domestically every day. That is almost the equivalent of the population of the City of Toronto – every woman, man and child – every week.
For the vast majority of these air travelers, the flight is as it should be: pleasant and uneventful, thanks to the efforts of tens of thousands of people working in airlines, airports, air traffic control, security, national governments and international agencies. And the vast majority of these air travelers will never once refer to the minister’s new rules in a dispute with an air carrier.
With less than 10 weeks left until the minister’s July 1 target date, time is running out. Airlines cannot begin changing information and communication systems, procedures and policies or developing training for tens of thousands of front-line and other employees before they even know for certain exactly what they will be required to do.
After spending over a billion dollars trying to fix its pay system and with over 200,000 federal employees still hurting, the federal government announced in its February Budget that it plans to phase-out Phoenix and start anew.
Unlike the government, air carriers and their passengers cannot afford a do-over. This is why we’re saying take the time to do get it right.
As a former astronaut who flew three Shuttle missions, Minister Garneau knows better than most that impatience has no place in the planning or execution of a successful launch.
Even with the world watching, shuttle launches were delayed dozens of times in the course of their status check – proving that sometimes the greatest virtue is knowing when to say “no go”.
When the federal government ran into difficulties rolling out its legal cannabis program as planned on July 1, 2018, it did the right thing and delayed implementation for a few months.
Getting legal cannabis rules right was important. We think getting air travel regulations right is no less important.
Massimo Bergamini is the President and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC).