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Opposition unites, calls for federal transport minister to address airport chaos

B.C. NDP and Conservative MPs want Omar Alghabra to face Parliamentary committee
A stranded passenger tries to sleep at Vancouver International Airport during the holiday season | Chung Chow

B.C. NDP and Conservative MPs have joined forces to call for Canada's Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra to address a Parliamentary committee to take responsibility for severe holiday travel glitches and provide solutions. 

The NDP's transport critic, Skeena–Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach, and the Conservative transport critic, Chilliwack MP Mark Strahl, have written a letter to the chair of the House of Commons' Standing Committee on Transportation, Infrastructure and Communities, Peter Schiefke, to ask him to arrange for a two-hour Alghabra appearance "immediately."

Gabor Lukacs, president of Air Passenger Rights, an independent, non-profit advocate for air travellers' rights, told BIV that he similarly believes Alghabra should face the committee.

Countless Canadians were stranded at airports during the holiday season due to weather-caused flight delays and cancellations. Many involved told media the problem was exacerbated by poor communication by airlines. 

"Canadians deserve timely answers and accountability," Bachrach and Strahl wrote in a letter that was also signed by Ontario MPs Leslyn Lewis and Dan Muys. 

While Lukacs thinks Alghabra should address the committee, he said the MPs' letter is mostly an effort to "politically call him out" and capitalize on widespread anger about how chaotic airports have been in the past month. 

Lukacs has been an advocate for passenger rights for about 15 years, and he has filed many lawsuits against airlines. Lukacs has also filed and won more than two dozen complaints with the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA).

His organization recently provided Schiefke's Parliamentary committee with the 29-page report From the Ground Up: Revamping Canada's Air Passenger Protection Regime, which contains plenty of recommendations to improve Canadian air travel. 

Alghabra should address those recommendations, Lukacs said. 

"He should also be asked to explain why he has not issued marching orders to the CTA with respect to enforcement," he added.

Lukacs said that Alghabra is not able to tell the CTA what to do in specific cases, because that would be interfering. What Alghabra can do, however, is issue a general directive that he would like the CTA to beef up the penalties it levies when airlines break the law. 

The most recent batch of CTA enforcement, for example, came on Sept. 13, when it found that WestJet Airlines Ltd. violated the law 55 times in January 2022 for not providing passengers with compensation, or an explanation of why compensation would not be payable, within a 30-day window of the complaint being filed. 

Each of those violations could have resulted in a $25,000 penalty, but the CTA instead issued $200 fines for each of the offences, for a total of $11,000.

Lukacs said such low penalties encourage airlines to break the law because they are able to generate more money from their illegal actions than they have to pay out in fines. 

A list of recent CTA enforcement decisions follow a pattern where fines levied for a variety of violations are at the low end of what the fines could have been, he added. 

BIV asked the CTA for an explanation of why the fines levied were at the low end of what could be meted out but did not get a response by deadline. 

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