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Transport minister tried to kill passenger rights bill despite publicly supporting it

Monday, November 16th, 2009 | 7:00 pm

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Canwest News Service

OTTAWA — The federal transport minister’s office privately pleaded with Canada’s big airlines to step up their lobby campaign to kill a proposed passenger bill of rights even as the minister publicly rallied behind the popular initiative, according to internal documents obtained by Canwest News Service.

The motion by Newfoundland Liberal MP Gerry Byrne, calling on the government to bring forward a bill to entrench a passenger bill of rights into law, passed in the House of Commons unanimously last year, but only after a high-ranking political operative in then-transport minister Lawrence Cannon’s office tried to scuttle the whole thing.

The effort to kill the motion is revealed in correspondence sent from the minister’s office to top executives and lobbyists at Air Canada, WestJet Airlines and Air Transat. The government intended the block the release of these passages and others in response to an Access to Information request, but the full, uncensored documents were sent to Canwest News Service — apparently by mistake.

“Gentleman, you’re going to have to do some lobbying to stop this motion in its tracks,” the minister’s senior policy adviser at the time, Paul Fitzgerald, told officials at Canada’s largest airlines in March 2008.

“If you don’t lobby the Grits and the Block (sic), we’re going to find ourselves in a position where we are outvoted by the opposition parties.”

Mr. Fitzgerald added, “I don’t want us to be forced into regulating passenger protection issues.”

A few months later, Mr. Cannon and John Baird, the current transport minister, were among Conservative cabinet ministers and MPs who voted for the motion.

The initiative, popular among consumers, was guaranteed to pass with the support of the three opposition parties, which outnumber Tory MPs.

At the time of the June 2008 vote, opposition MPs were skeptical the Conservative government would carry through on the motion calling for legislation to strengthen the rights of airline passengers.

Other private correspondence intended to be blacked out but released to Canwest News Service — coming from both the minister’s office and a senior bureaucrat at Transport Canada’s civil aviation branch — indicate the skepticism was well-founded.

In a two-page critique for senior bureaucrats about why a passenger bill of rights, modelled on rules in the European Union, was not necessary or desirable, Fitzgerald said the European rights focus on denied boarding, cancelled flights and delays “in an industry known for regularly overbooking passengers, cancelling undersold flights and making refunds difficult.”

But he said the “motion would do almost nothing in terms of advancing the cause of passenger rights” because Canada’s airline tariffs provide better protection for Canadian passengers than those found in the European bill of rights.

In response, the director general of air policy at Transport Canada, Brigita Gravitis-Beck, wrote to the assistant deputy minister of policy to explain the bureaucracy had no appetite for any legislation to codify the rights of airline passengers in Canada.

“We are on the same page” as the minister’s office, Ms. Gravitis-Beck said. “I am quite concerned that in a minority government, this may pass for political reasons that have nothing to do with logic.”

Since the motion passed last year, the Conservative government has not moved forward with legislation to strengthen the rights of airline passengers.

A private member’s bill, modelled on the European Union’s 2005 Airline Passenger Bill of Rights and authored by Manitoba NDP MP Jim Maloway, cleared an important legislative hurdle last spring when it passed second reading in the House ofCommons with Bloc and Liberal MPs supporting the bill, which is currently being studied by the transport committee.

The government is also dragging its feet on legislation, which passed in the Senate more than two years ago, requiring airlines to advertise the full price of airfares.

The bill to update key sections of the Canada Transportation Act received royal assent on June 22, 2007. A last-minute amendment in the Senate to delay implementation of the airfare advertising provision was slipped in so consultations could be held to sort out how to move forward without harming domestic airlines.

No formal consultations have been held as yet, and it is now up to the federal cabinet to set an implementation date.

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