Chair and CEO Scott Streiner addresses the International Association of Airport Executives Canada on June 7, 2017
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Everyone in this room, I'd venture, has at least two things in common: we've all flown in the last year, if not the last 48 hours, and we all have, or have had, or know someone who has a disability. So smooth, efficient, and accessible travel is not someone else's issue. It is our issue.
And as airport and airline executives and, in my case, the head of a regulatory body, we share something else: the ability to do something to advance these goals.
Today, I'd like to speak about steps the Canadian Transportation Agency is taking in this regard – and some steps you, as industry leaders, can take as well. But first, a bit of history.
In just 24 days, Canada will be marking the 150th anniversary of Confederation. This is a chance to celebrate our good fortune as citizens of this land of peace and prosperity, to reflect on the factors that have contributed to the country's success, and to think about what will be required to ensure Canadians' economic and social well-being in the decades to come.
The Canadian Transportation Agency has been part of the machinery of Canada's governance for 113 of those 150 years, making it the country's longest-standing independent tribunal and regulator. We've learned a lot over that time – and we're still learning, still adapting to an evolving economy and national transportation system, still working to meet the needs and expectations of Canadians in a rapidly-changing world.
The CTA was actually born at almost exactly the same time as human flight: its first incarnation, the Board of Railway Commissioners was established on February 1, 1904 – just 45 days after the Wright Brothers first got their flying machine off the ground at Kitty Hawk.
It would be another 34 years before oversight of the aviation system was added to the CTA's mandate.
Today, the CTA has a wide range of aviation-related responsibilities. We licence air carriers, issue charter permits, and assess whether proposed foreign investments affect the control-in-fact of Canadian airlines by Canadians. We protect the fundamental right of persons with disabilities to accessible transportation services. And we provide consumer protection to air passengers.
Over the coming half hour, I'll focus on accessibility and consumer protection – the areas where the CTA's services most directly touch the individual traveller.
Air travel today
Air travel is still a sort of miracle. Think about it: we can have breakfast in Calgary, then head off to the new airport terminal to climb into a metal tube with wings and engines. And after less than 12 hours of watching old episodes of the Big Bang Theory, trying to find a position that will allow us to sleep more soundly, and enjoying the culinary delights of airline food, we can disembark to enjoy lunch in Beijing, capital city of a civilization that had virtually no contact with the West for four millennia, and which, until the arrival of commercial flight, could only be reached from Canada through sea journeys taking many weeks. If you set aside those same 12 hours for a long journey in the 1800s, you could ride your horse all the way from Calgary to…Kananaskis.
Aviation has shrunk the planet, creating a global economic and social fabric with threads that run between cities and towns, countries and continents. It is a wonder – and at the same time, completely routine.
Travelling by air is no longer a luxury enjoyed by the lucky few. It has become an integral part of modern life. Last year, 133 million people got on or off a plane in Canada. We take to the skies to do business, see family and friends, and discover new places. Airports and airlines get us where we want to go.
Maybe this is why air travel issues garner so much attention. Most of the time, our trips unfold without a hitch. But when they don't, the experience can be disruptive and frustrating. Because air travel is so important – and because, as individual passengers, we have little control over how it goes – we want to know that any problems will be dealt with promptly and effectively.
We've seen evidence of Canadians' concerns about air travel in recent months, both in media reports and in the files handled by the CTA.
Last summer, we at the CTA realized that many Canadians didn't know they could turn to us for assistance if there were issues with their air travel that they weren't able to resolve with service providers. We thought that was a problem and decided to do something about it. Starting in September, we undertook modest public information efforts, through social media and targeted ads, with a simple goal: to raise awareness of our roles and services. Our approach was to be creative in the ways we reached Canadians, but to always use the neutral, factual tone appropriate for a tribunal and regulator.
The results were dramatic. For many years, we'd been receiving about 70 complaints per month on issues like delayed boarding, damaged luggage, and bumping, and 3 or 4 complaints per month about the accessibility of airports and planes. From October, those numbers started to grow, and now, we're receiving 400 to 600 complaints per month on air passenger consumer issues, and 10 to 15 complaints per month related to the accessibility of air travel.
These increases suggest that there was, as we suspected, a gap in Canadians' awareness of the CTA's services – and that travellers want access to fair, timely remedies if they face problems with their air travel.
A range of actions will help us meet these expectations.
The first type of action is legislative change. To be clear: this is not really the purview of the CTA, which is the independent, expert administrator of the law, not its author. Legislation is in the Government's and Parliament's bailiwick, and in crafting legislative proposals, the Government's main source of public service advice and support is line departments like Transport Canada that report directly to Ministers.
As you know, there has recently been a major development on the legislative front: the Minister of Transport has introduced Bill C-49 which, among other things, provides the basis for a new air passenger protection regime. The Bill mandates the CTA to develop regulations establishing passengers' rights if their flights are delayed or cancelled, if their bags are lost or damaged, if they are travelling with children or musical instruments, and if they experience tarmac delays of more than three hours. If passed in more or less its current form, Bill C-49 will give the CTA important new tools to protect the flying public.
At the same time, the Minister for Sport and Persons with Disabilities has been consulting widely on accessibility, and has indicated that national accessibility legislation will be brought forward in 2018.
The CTA is ready to provide Ministers and Parliamentarians with any information and analysis that would be useful as they consider legislative change. And whatever the final shape of the law, we will apply it with an unwavering commitment to impartial decision making guided solely by the evidence before us, the language and purpose of the legislation, and relevant jurisprudence.
The development of new regulations
Good legislation needs to be complemented by modern, effective regulations. Regulatory reform is a second area in which action is being taken to meet the needs of Canadian travellers.
A year ago, the CTA launched the Regulatory Modernization Initiative, or RMI, with the aim of bringing the regulations we administer in line with current business models, user expectations, and best practices in the regulatory field. The RMI is the most ambitious regulatory review in the history of the CTA: every regulation we apply is being looked at. The goals: to ensure that industry's obligations are clear, predictable, and no more burdensome than necessary to achieve public policy goals, and to facilitate the quick identification and correction of non-compliance, so that we preserve a level playing field for the good players and protect the system's users.
The RMI is divided into four consultation phases. The first, which is largely complete, has focused on accessible transportation. The second deals with air licencing, charter permits, and determinations of whether Canadian airlines are controlled in fact by Canadians.
The third and fourth consultation phases will deal with consumer protection for air passengers and rail-related issues. Their timing will depend on the progress of Bill C-49 through Parliament.
Let me offer a few details on what stakeholders and the public can expect from this process.
On accessibility, our consultations have involved 30 face-to-face meetings and over 200 written submissions. While we're still looking at all the input, we've found broad support for:
- creating a comprehensive set of accessible transportation regulations – in place of the current patchwork of regulations and voluntary codes -- that apply across the national transportation system;
- emphasizing staff training and education on how to serve and interact with persons with disabilities; and,
- having service providers develop multi-year accessibility plans that encourage proactive rather than reactive strategies to advance accessibility.
Discussion continues on many of the details. We will, for example, have to find an appropriate balance between regulations that are specific enough to achieve real results, but not so prescriptive that they stifle innovation, nor so onerous that they impose undue hardship on service providers. We'll also need to decide what obligations to place on smaller operators with more limited traffic and resources, and on air carriers operating international services to and from Canada.
The week after next, I'll meet with the CTA's Accessibility Advisory Committee – which brings together industry and community representatives – to discuss the results of our consultations and seek additional feedback as we move towards finalizing regulatory directions on accessible transportation.
Turning to consumer protection for air travellers, we know that consultations will generate a great deal of public interest. We're planning for a multi-pronged process that gives industry, consumer rights organizations, experts, and the general public several ways of making their views known:
- First, we'll create a dedicated webpage for online discussions and crowdsourcing, a method the CTA introduced when developing All-inclusive Air Price Advertising Regulations in 2012.
- Second, we'll invite written submissions, and post them on our consultation page.
- Third, we'll hold day-long, face-to-face consultation hearings in locations across the country.
We expect these consultations to last two to three months. The resulting air traveller protection regime will:
- fully implement the provisions of the final legislation passed by Parliament;
- take a balanced approach that protects passengers while recognizing that some flight disruptions are beyond the control of airlines;
- draw on best practices and lessons learned in other jurisdictions, including the European Union and the United States; and,
- be grounded in the principles of transparency, clarity, fairness, and consistency.
Once the regulations are drafted, they – like all the new and updated regulations being developed through the RMI – will be subject to two approvals: one by the Agency and one by Cabinet. Our plan is to get this done in 2018.
Another area where the CTA is taking action is the delivery of dispute resolution services.
When travellers turn to the CTA with concerns about accessibility or about air travel issues such as bumping or lost baggage, they don't want to have to wade through complicated forms, deal with arcane jargon, or wait months to hear back from staff. We're taking a number of steps to make sure we meet their expectations:
- We've created user-friendly online complaint forms that take less than 10 minutes to complete.
- We ensure that each complainant gets a call from a CTA officer within one week of receipt of their complaint form.
- We resolve more than 90 per cent of air travel complaints through a simple, informal facilitation process that involves back-and-forth calls between the complainant, the service provider, and CTA staff.
- Where facilitation doesn't result in resolution and the parties want to try the slightly more structured process of mediation, we work within a 30-day deadline.
- Where neither facilitation nor mediation produces an agreement and a matter proceeds to formal adjudication, we're establishing a Fast Track process for straightforward air travel cases. This process will be similar to a small claims court proceeding, and will result in a binding decision within 30 business days.
The CTA isn't looking for business: in an ideal world, there would be few issues around accessible transportation or smooth air travel and little need for parties to seek the CTA's assistance. But until we reach that promised land, we'll continue to let Canadians know we're here to help, and continue our efforts to make sure our services are fair to all sides, are delivered efficiently, and produce meaningful results.
Action by airports and airlines
So, that's some of what the CTA is doing. But there are actions airports and airlines can take as well, even as legislative and regulatory reform is being considered.
Airports can help get information to travellers on their rights and responsibilities by, for example, running the CTA's information videos on their screens. They can also improve accessibility by avoiding any "who-does-what" confusion with airlines, providing a relieving area for service animals on the secure side of their terminals, ensuring that contracted taxi companies have vehicles that can transport mobility aids, and prominently displaying information regarding accessibility services on their websites.
We have examples of airports that do all these things – and more. I'd encourage all airport executives to examine and adopt such best practices.
Airlines can post plain-language summaries of their tariffs – their terms and conditions of carriage – on their websites, and use in-flight magazines and entertainment systems to let passengers know who to turn to with any concerns. I wrote to the CEOs of the country's five largest airlines last fall to propose such steps, and the response has been good.
Airlines can also improve accessibility by, for instance, setting up a dedicated 1-800 number for travellers with disabilities who need accommodation, publishing the dimensions of cargo hold doors by aircraft type, and ensuring that agents ask passengers about their specific disability-related needs.
In addition, both airports and airlines can work with disability rights groups and others experts during the design phase for new facilities and equipment purchases. It's better to plan and build in a way that moves towards universal accessibility from the get-go, rather than retrofitting after the fact or relying solely on individual accommodations.
Finally, airports, airlines, community organizations, and Canadians in general can give the CTA the benefit of their experience and insights as we work on regulatory modernization and service improvement. At the CTA, we believe in being engaged and responsive: a regulator and adjudicator does its job best when it understands the on-the-ground realities faced every day by service providers and users.
Let me conclude with a quote that has been attributed to either Mahatma Ghandi or – and while this is less inspiring, it does have the ring of truth – Kenneth Elliott, Vice President of Sales for the Studebaker Corporation in the 1940s:
Customers…are not dependent on us. We are dependent on them. They are not an interruption in our work. They are the purpose of it. They are not outsiders in our business. They are part of it. We are not doing them a favor by serving them. They are doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.
In a world where travellers have many options and always carry a cell phone with a camera, providing excellent customer service and quick, fair remedies when something goes awry is not just in the interests of travellers themselves – it is also in the interests of airlines and airports.
In a world where the population is aging, the percentage of people with disabilities is growing, and equality and diversity are core Canadian values, ensuring accessible transportation services is not just an ethical imperative – it is also a business imperative.
The CTA will continue to do its part, building on its longstanding foundations of independence, expertise, and impartiality. We expect service providers to do their part. And we look forward to continuing a dialogue on how we can ensure that when Canadians choose to take flight, their experience is – if not wondrous – at least, positive.
Thank you for your attention.