Overhaul inefficient air screening, ensure passenger rights: report

The long-awaited report on the Canada Transportation Act recommends substantial changes to air travel

An Air Canada Boeing 767-300ER departs from Vancouver International Airport, March 3, 2013. Bayne Stanley/CP

An Air Canada Boeing 767-300ER departs from Vancouver International Airport, March 3, 2013. Bayne Stanley/CP

OTTAWA — Canada needs to overhaul its inefficient air-security screening system and create new protections for passengers hit with delays and cancellations, says a federal transportation review.

The long-awaited report on the Canada Transportation Act recommends replacing the current “one size fits all” passenger-screening approach with an intelligence-driven, risk-based process similar to those used in the United States and elsewhere.

It also calls for legislation or regulations for air carriers serving Canada that spell out passenger rights and remedies that are as “harmonized as possible” with those of the U.S. and the European Union.

The two key recommendations, if adopted, could make flying a better experience for Canadians by easing congestion in security lineups and ensuring compensation when people are bumped or stuck at the airport.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Thursday he will carefully consider the report’s many findings.

The review, initiated by the previous Conservative government, found the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority — while fulfilling its screening mandate — has been unable to meet the challenge of increasing demands with limited resources.

The reviewers heard “near-universal condemnation of the existing state of security screening services at Canadian airports,” the report says.

Canadian travellers already pay one of the highest aviation security fees in the world, but there is insufficient capacity to meet predictable peaks in demand, performance is declining and queues are getting longer, it adds.

Others are pursuing more “outcome-focused regulations” and risk-based security programs, the report says, citing London’s Heathrow Airport and the Hong Kong International Airport, where the standard is to screen 95 per cent of passengers in less than five minutes.

The review notes Transport Canada is responsible for setting overall policy, while the air transport security agency carries out screening and it recommends a single, integrated agency perform both functions.

On passenger rights, the report points out Canadian air carriers already comply with the consumer protection laws imposed by several jurisdictions, including the U.S. and European Union, when they fly to and from those destinations.

But travellers do not enjoy the same sort of treatment when flying within Canada.

The current system, based on one-off rulings by the Canadian Transportation Agency in response to complaints, is producing “piecemeal outcomes.”

“We have heard from all sides of the issue — carriers, public interest advocates, and the Agency — that the status quo is untenable.”

The report says airlines need to maintain the flexibility to overbook flights for commercial reasons, but passengers should have access to information on their rights.

“The current situation often results in a one-off negotiation between a gate agent and a stressed, time-sensitive passenger who does not know how much the airline can or will offer in compensation.”

The same is true for flight delays or cancellations, the report says, noting the result can be unequal access to compensation.

In addition to new statutory protections, the report recommends giving the Canadian Transportation Agency power to undertake investigations on its own so it can report on and resolve systemic issues.

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