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Airlines, airports, transport minister to testify on holiday travel mess at committee

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By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa

From long hours waiting on hold to sleepless nights on airport floors and desperate scrambles to rebook flights and find missing bags, it was a holiday travel season that no one had on their wish list — but that thousands of people got.

Now, Canadians have a chance to hear top travel executives and the federal transport minister explain what went wrong, and what might be done to avoid a repeat.

Leaders from the country’s major airports and airlines are among witnesses set to appear today during an emergency meeting of the House of Commons transportation committee being convened well ahead of Parliament’s return later this month.

The meeting is expected to kick off with a panel of representatives from Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing Airlines.

Sunwing, a vacation-destination airline, has apologized for leaving hundreds stranded in Mexico after cancelling its flights due to a winter storm that swept across parts of Canada in the lead-up to Christmas Day, and then axing trips out of Saskatchewan until early February due to “extenuating circumstances.”

But it’s not Mother Nature MPs are taking issue with. Rather, it’s the communication — or lack thereof — that companies had with passengers whose plans were upended.

And while Sunwing Airlines president Len Corrado is scheduled to appear, neither Air Canada nor WestJet will be represented by a president or CEO, with the airlines instead sending vice-presidents to testify.

“Canadian travellers who were mistreated by airlines deserve an explanation. The very least that these rich CEOs can do is show up, explain what went wrong and show Canadians how they’re going to do better,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement to The Canadian Press.

Bloc Québécois transportation critic Julie Vignola echoed that sentiment, saying in a French statement that their absences demonstrate their limited concern for passengers’ rights.

A spokesperson for WestJet said its CEO was unavailable for comment, as did Air Canada, with the company saying committee members welcomed the decision to send vice-presidents with subject matter expertise instead.

The Opposition Conservatives say that while Canadians deserve answers from airlines, they believe the buck stops with Liberal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, who is scheduled for an hour of testimony Thursday afternoon.

They point to the long lines and delays passengers experienced at airports last summer when the country witnessed a widespread return of travel for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

“Canadians are suffering at the hands of (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau’s broken transportation system, and until the government is held to account to fix it, Canadians will continue to pay the price for their failure,” Mark Strahl, a Conservative MP on the committee, said in a statement.

Alghabra has called what happened over the holidays “unacceptable” and vowed to bring in legislation to strength the country’s existing Air Passenger Protection Regulations — a set of standards that allow travellers to request compensation when their flights are delayed or cancelled for reasons such as scheduling.

“Is this an opportunity for us to take a look at our rules and our system to make them stronger, to make them clearer, to make them more efficient? Absolutely,” he told reporters. “But again it’s not just the rules. We need airlines to make sure they make good decisions to keep passengers’ rights at the centre of their operation.”

Among other changes, Alghabra is eyeing amending the rules so that airlines would have to compensate passengers automatically. It’s a move that passenger rights’ advocates, Conservatives and the NDP support.

“When airlines’ flight schedules get snarled, people miss weddings, funerals and vacations they’ve been saving up for. Some are left stranded,” Taylor Bachrach, an NDP MP on the committee, said in a statement.

“The difficulty of a delayed or cancelled flight shouldn’t be followed by the nightmare of fighting for compensation.”

As for how airlines feel about the move, a WestJet vice-president said in a statement that it would be “foundationally burdensome” as it would require airlines to have “up-to-date passenger information to appropriately process these claims.”

“We are disappointed that airlines continue to be singled out as the only point of ownership and accountability for travel in Canada, as this must be a shared responsibility by the entire aviation ecosystem,” said Andy Gibbons, its vice-president of external affairs, who is set to testify Thursday.

A spokesperson for Air Canada added that while it won’t speculate on the possible changes, “it should be noted that no passenger protection regime in the world requires carriers to compensate customers for severe weather delays.”

The president and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada, Jeff Morrison, added that the regulations were last amended in the fall, and he believes it would be too soon to open them up again.

“We don’t want to be making policy based on very individual, one-time incidents,” he said.

Morrison said he believes it would be better for Ottawa to spend more on airport infrastructure to ensure travel hubs can handle storms, and introduce service standards for airports and aviation-related agencies such as the one that handles airport security.

“Many disruptions are due to factors outside the airline’s control.”

The presidents of the Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto airports are also scheduled to testify during the five hours of hearings on Thursday, as are officials from Transport Canada and leaders from the Canadian Transportation Agency.

One of the questions the federal regulator is likely to field is how it plans to clear a backlog of more than 33,000 passenger complaints, nearly 3,000 of which the agency said it has received since Dec. 20.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2023.

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Health

Liberals table bill delaying medically assisted dying expansion to March 2024

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OTTAWA — The federal government is seeking to delay the extension of assisted dying eligibility to people whose sole condition is a mental disorder until March 17, 2024.

Justice Minister David Lametti introduced a bill seeking the extension in the House of Commons on Thursday.

The Liberal government agreed to expand eligibility in its 2021 update to assisted dying law after senators amended the bill, arguing that excluding people with mental illness would violate their rights.

That law put a two-year clock on the expansion that is set to expire on March 17. The Liberals now have six weeks to pass the new legislation, which would add another year to the delay.

Lametti said earlier that he is expecting agreement among other parties and senators to pass the bill in that short time frame.

Helen Long, CEO of advocacy organization Dying With Dignity Canada, said in a statement that keeping people with mental disorders from accessing assisted dying is “discriminatory and perpetuates the stigma that they do not have the capacity to make decisions about their own health care.”

Before Lametti tabled the bill, the group had urged the federal government to make the delay “short and effective.”

But Conservative MP Michael Cooper said on Twitter that the delay is not enough and the “dangerous expansion” needs to be scrapped altogether.

Tories have argued that it is difficult for doctors to tell when a person’s suffering due to a mental disorder is past the point of treatment, so the policy could lead to avoidable deaths.

“One year won’t resolve the problems. Experts are clear that irremediability cannot be determined for mental illness,” Cooper said.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett was expected to join Lametti at a news conference about the delay later on Thursday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2023.


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Alberta

Feds to lay out ‘sustainable jobs’ plan for energy transition ahead of legislation

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By Mia Rabson in Ottawa

The federal government will show Canadians its plan to protect jobs during the clean energy transition no later than early spring, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said Wednesday.

Legislation to guide how that plan is implemented, however, won’t come for some time after that.

The Liberals have promised a “just transition act” since at least 2019, and Wilkinson has been saying it will finally happen this year.

That prospect prompted outcry in Alberta, where the energy transition will have the biggest impact and provincial politicians are headed for a tightly contested election this spring.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has asked for a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to help shape that legislation. Her chief opponent, NDP Leader Rachel Notley, asked the federal Liberals to delay the whole thing at least until after the election, which is scheduled for the end of May.

But Wilkinson said the bill, for which he didn’t offer a timeline, will in some ways be secondary to the action plan listing what the government intends to do. He said that plan will hopefully be revealed by the end of March, though it may “slip into the next quarter.”

“The legislation will guide future efforts and will create a governance structure, but it’s the policy statement that I think is going to be the most impactful,” he said. “And, as I say, we will be releasing that in the coming few months.”

He said the plan is based on lengthy consultations with provinces, labour organizations, business and Indigenous communities. Ultimately, he said, it will contain no surprises.

The concept of a “just transition” has existed for several decades, but it took on new meaning after the 2015 Paris climate agreement committed most of the world to transitioning to cleaner energy sources in a bid to slow climate change.

The idea is that any efforts to adjust reliance on fossil fuels must ensure that people who work in energy industries can move to new sectors and will not be left out in the cold.

The “just transition” debate exploded last month when Smith lambasted the federal government for a briefing document that listed the number of jobs that could be affected by the ongoing global transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy.

Smith misread the total number of jobs in the affected sectors to mean the number of jobs the federal government expected would be lost, and pledged to “fight this just transition idea” with everything she had.

A week later, the premier wrote to Trudeau warning him that the Ottawa-Alberta relationship was “at a crossroads,” and demanding that Alberta be included in all discussions on a “just transition” going forward.

She also said the legislation shouldn’t be labelled as a “just transition” bill, but one about “sustainable jobs.”

That request hit the federal government with interest and even amusement, since several federal ministers had already signalled their intention to use the term.

“I think I’ve been pretty clear I don’t like the term ‘just transition,'” Wilkinson said Wednesday.

“I prefer ‘sustainable jobs.’ I think it speaks to a future where we’re looking to build economic opportunity for all regions of this country, very much including Alberta and Saskatchewan.”

Smith will be in Ottawa next week as part of a first ministers meeting on health care, but there is no sign she will get a one-on-one meeting with Trudeau on sustainable jobs.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2023.

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