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Airports are emotional landscapes but flying can now be a truly soul-destroying experience

Passengers are left hanging while airports and airlines refuse to accept responsibility. We can stop the blame game with a tough passenger bill of rights.

Flying may be an incredible thing but it shouldn't make airports and airlines immune from accountability, Shawn Micallef writes.

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Flying may be an incredible thing but it shouldn't make airports and airlines immune from accountability, Shawn Micallef writes.

I’m generally on the side of comedian Louis CK who had a bit a few years ago in which he sounded off on people complaining about flying. In one version he says, “They’re like it was the worst day of my life: first of all we didn’t board for 20 minutes, and then we got on the plane and they made us sit there on the runway for 40 minutes.”

“Oh really?” C.K. goes on to ask. “What happened next? Did you fly through the air incredibly like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight? You’re flying! It’s amazing. Everybody on every plane should be constantly going ‘Oh my god! Wow!’ You’re sitting in a chair in the sky.”

He’s right. Walking into the airport is still exciting: the anticipation of a trip, people from all over, smart uniforms, smarter technology. Better still, hang around the arrivals lounge of any airport and cure whatever cynicism you have for humanity by watching reunion after reunion, sometimes entire extended families, other times just a lone person waiting with flowers. You can imagine the stories as your heart swells.

Airports are emotional landscapes, but sometimes the emotions run red hot. Such was the case back in May when I had an impromptu reunion with my mom who was flying from Halifax to Windsor via Toronto. When she arrived at Pearson airport she, along with everyone else with a similar connection, were told their flight had been cancelled. Recall that spring was a season of cancelled and delayed flights at Pearson due to runway construction.

In the early evening, I got a text from mom saying she was in line to speak to an Air Canada agent about rebooking. I, naively, said because they cancelled it they’d put her up in an airport hotel, as they should, or at least, as they used to. However after two hours in line she was told it would be two days before she could fly home to Windsor and that no hotel or reimbursement would be offered as it was the airport’s fault, not theirs.

She and others had to scramble to find either a hotel or arrange another way home so I drove out and picked up a very dehydrated 70 year old (nobody leaves their place in an airport line, even if it’s two hours long) and brought her downtown to my apartment. Though an unexpected visit with mom is not a bad thing, had I not lived nearby and been free to pick her up, she’d have been stranded. Story after story like this came out during these weeks, yet the airport and airlines carried on like it was business as usual.

Though Air Canada told her two days, next morning mom’s travel agent in Kentville, N.S., was able to book her on a flight to Windsor leaving in a few hours, a very few, so we rushed to the airport. I wasn’t going to leave until her plane was “wheels up” so I stuck around for a couple hours. Mom eventually took off on a plane that, she reported, was only about half full, and I left with a $28 parking bill for this unplanned trip. When I asked, via Twitter, if they’d reimburse that $28 because Air Canada said it was their fault, the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) didn’t answer. Their spokesperson later said they were not refunding anybody.

After writing a letter of complaint to them, Air Canada said they wouldn’t offer compensation either, but gave my mom a one-time discount of 25 per cent off the base fare on her next booking. Neither here nor there, but Air Canada just posted a record $300 million profit for their second quarter, a period of time that covers mom’s delay.

What’s stunning about this story is the airlines blamed the airport while the GTAA said passengers were the responsibility of the airlines. Some then blamed Nav Canada, the private, not-for-profit corporation that manages air traffic control in this country. Are you confused? We were. Nobody would accept blame for knowingly running an airport at full capacity when they could not deal with that capacity. It was like they were all colluding to take people’s money away from them by selling a service they knew they couldn’t provide.

Yet, what should have been a public relations disaster for the GTAA and the airlines, wasn’t. A few weeks later the runway reopened, and the springtime troubles were seemingly forgotten. Trips were booked and life goes on. The airlines, for their part, went on with business as usual.

Last week Air Transat stranded passengers for six hours in a hot airplane in Ottawa on a flight from Brussels to Montreal that had been diverted. The airline blamed the airport for its inability to unload the passengers, and, well, you get the feeling everyone involved all retired to the airport bar at the end of day and chuckle about how effortlessly they can shift blame to one another like a spoiled hot potato only the passengers have to eat.

The Federal government’s Bill C-49 that is proposing changes to air travel regulation would, in part, create a "passenger bill of rights", but critics say it doesn’t go far enough. Despite that, the president of Air Transat, Jean-Francois Lemay, said this week that such regulation would unfairly punish airlines and shifted blame to, you guessed it, the airports. See you at the bar, Jean-Francois!

Even if we blame the airports, they exist in a strange unaccountable bubble. The GTAA is a private, non-profit corporation, a long arm’s length away from both government and industry oversight. They are also well known to resist co-operation with other agencies; when the UP Express began operation, signage to find the station inside Pearson was terrible, and it took sustained public complaints for the GTAA to fix it. Recall, too, they originally wanted to charge UPX passengers an additional $2 airport fee, but that was dropped after public outcry.

Of late there’s been talk of letting private investors have a stake in the GTAA to help fund a massive transit hub by the airport. Pearson is a “critical and valuable economic asset,” says the GTAA, facilitating an estimated 332,000 jobs and responsible for $42 billion or 6.3 per cent of Ontario’s economic output. All fine and good, but what about the passengers?

Some might dismiss air travel as a luxury, but many people on limited incomes save up for years for a special flight, perhaps to the old country or to visit a far flung loved one. For all of these reasons, Bill C-49 needs a stronger passenger bill of rights and more public oversight over airports, a critical part of our economy and national infrastructure.

Louis CK was right: flying is incredible, so incredible that airports and airlines are currently immune from accountability.

Shawn Micallef writes every Saturday in the Toronto Star about where and how we live in the GTA. Wander the streets with him on Twitter @shawnmicallef

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