14 DEC 2017: Airlines have a lot in common with the weather. In any social setting where people get together, if there's a lull in the conversation the inevitable default subject is either something like, "It looks like we're in for rain tonight" or, "Did I tell you about what airline X did to me last week?" The latter will typically be followed by a retort like, "Huh, that's nothing! Wait 'til you hear what airline Y did to me when …"

This ubiquitous air carrier antipathy possibly stems from the fact that, like the weather, most folks have something to say about airlines. Unfortunately however, whereas one might hear, "Jeez, hasn't the weather been great this week", saying positive things about an airline experience doesn't seem to cut it socially.

Now, the troubled passage of Minister of Transport Marc Garneau's 'Passenger Bill of Rights' says a lot about the role that airlines seem to play in many people's psyches. The same inflated attention level that airlines attract in casual conversations has perennially extended to both the media and to politicians.

Catering to the 'bad news sells newspapers' theorem, the former loves to feed their readers' hunger for negative airline stories. Meanwhile the latter see airline-baiting legislation as something that plays well at the ballot box. Why else, prompted by a United Airlines flyer being brutally dragged off a flight in Chicago, would Brian Masse, MP for Windsor Ontario (West) suddenly become a proponent of a bill to protect the rights of Canadian airline passengers?

The introduction to the 72-page Passenger Bill of Rights - or to be precise, the Act to Amend the Canada Transportation Act, calls for, "… air carriers to report on different aspects of their performance with respect to passenger experience and quality of service."

As 'an airline guy', this is what gets my back up - the obvious question being, why just airlines?

There is no question that when it comes to ensuring compliance with aircraft maintenance standards as well as other operational and general safety issues, it falls to government agencies to be the enforcers. If you are stuck on the ground for more than 90-minutes then yes, you should be able to get off the aircraft. If your flight is cancelled or you're bumped then there should be clear-cut rules that work fairly for passengers and airlines alike. But "passenger experience and quality of service" is a very wide window of potential over-oversight. And again, if you want to open that window, why just airlines?

What about city buses, commuter trains and ferries that consistently run 5-minutes late for a 10-minute trip?

What about doctors who keep you waiting 25-minutes for an appointment and seldom apologize for the poor patient "experience and quality of service." Or the big box stores - the ones that define 'needle in a haystack' when you try to find a 'sales associate' to help you locate a needle for your haystack.

Then there are the insurance companies and banks that have you input your account numbers several times before you get to a semi-live body who yet again asks you for the same information. The list goes on …

These are all "performance … customer experience" and "quality of service" issues but there is no government intervention in any of them. Not one of them is required to submit reports to some bureaucratic bunker in Ottawa - and neither should they.

In every one of these cases, the difference is that healthy, open competition works as a great leveler. If consumers don't like one company's service, they can 'talk with your feet' and take their business elsewhere. So why does the Canadian government feel it has to get involved with "quality of service" matters in the (now) private sector airline industry? The answer is really very simple …

Unsurprisingly, the cozy, government-sponsored duopoly that Air Canada and WestJet enjoys inhibits market forces from doing their job. When it comes to a choice of airlines, Canadians have never had anything remotely approaching the degree of choice that flyers have in almost every other part of the free world.

It's now over 12 months since, Mister Garneau announced changes to Canada's foreign ownership limitations stating, "I expect that, as new carriers come into the field, the measures announced today will bring down airfares and provide more destinations and more choice to passengers."

This would have been a reasonable expectation had the civil servants who populate the Canadian Transport Agency not appeared to deliberately drag their feet and delay the approval of any new ULCC foreign investors: Delays that have been just long enough for WestJet to Swoop in with a potential roadblock to new entrants.

So, in the short term it looks like we could be in for some cloudy days but in time let's hope the sun will break through.

 

 

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David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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