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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: New passenger rights won’t come without baggage

Passengers head to catch a flight. — Reuters file photo

Pendulums swing.

It’s in their nature.

In two days, the second tranche of new airline rules will come into effect in this country, meaning that air carriers will have to pay passengers hefty amounts for delayed flights (not weather delays), joining stiffer penalties announced last summer for passengers who get bumped as a result of overbooking, and beefed-up penalties for lost luggage.

The swing of the pendulum bringing the penalties into place was a long time coming. For years, in the battle between airlines and individual passengers, all the power has been in the airlines’ hands. A year ago, if you got bumped from a flight, tough luck. You took what the airlines offered and that was it. (I’ll admit, the whole idea of selling a time-limited product that you don’t actually have to sell — by charging money for a seat that’s already full — always sounded perilously close to fraud to me.)

But I wonder if the latest swing towards passenger rights is going to create new, unforeseen problems.

For my first witness, I call the banana lady. I saw her in the grocery store on Monday night. With a pursed expression, she was picking up bunches of slightly-too-ripe bananas, inspecting them, and then slamming them back down on the display — essentially delivering a message about her dissatisfaction to management with every banana-slam.

Except she wasn’t.

In the end, she wasn’t successfully punishing the store for having sub-par bananas — she was just adding to the price of groceries for everyone else. All those wrecked bananas still had to be paid for, and she and other customers would be the ones picking up the bill.

I understand the frustration involved in air travel. I have to travel to Ottawa four times a year, and in the last 12 return trips, I’ve had only three that actually wound up running on time. I have had cancellations for mechanical issues (including a case where a locking pin was left in an aircraft undercarriage, meaning the wheels wouldn’t come up and the flight had to turn back), delays long and short for all manner of airport issues, personnel issues and equipment issues. On top of that, several flight cancellations. There are definitely problems that have to be fixed.

But the swing of the pendulum is bound to have effects on the airlines.

I have to travel to Ottawa four times a year, and in the last 12 return trips, I’ve had only three that actually wound up running on time.

Some people will make claims — others won’t bother, either because they don’t realize they can, or because the hassle takes too long. (Passengers have to apply for the payouts.) Money will flow out the door for airlines that had, in the past, been able to simply tell customers with no real options that they’d have to take whatever the airline deigned to give them.

In short, I think the new system is going to create a whole different set of issues.

I also wonder if anyone has thought about areas of the country where flights are fewer and further between. It’s one thing to penalize airlines for short-term delays in busy air corridors — say, the Montreal/Toronto/Ottawa triangle — but if you’re flying from an area with only a few flights a day by a carrier, any unexpected delay will pile up extra costs for an airline because of the fewer options it has to deal with rebooking passengers. And that might, in the end, make flights from smaller areas a riskier financial proposition for airlines.

Supporters of the new financial penalties argue that similar systems in other countries haven’t led to huge increases in ticket prices or other catastrophes — and that’s a fine thing.

But I’m old enough to remember a slew of Canadian airline business ventures that failed because their revenues couldn’t cover their costs. And just like with smashed bananas, the customer does end up footing the bill in the end.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire publications across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky


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