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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/14/2009 10:35:48 AM ET 2009-05-14T14:35:48

Frustrated air travelers, how does this sound: A check for $500 for each hour an airline keeps you on the ground inside an airplane without fresh air, working restrooms, refreshments or the chance to go back to the gate?

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How about $100 for each hour an airline knows where your lost luggage is, but won’t tell you?

These are just some of the hefty fines proposed in the Air Passengers' Bill of Rights act that Jim Maloway, a member of Canada's parliament, is trying to get passed into law. And even though the Canadian dollar is currently worth less than 90 U.S. cents, those payments still sound pretty good, don’t they? Especially when you consider that Canadian airlines — like U.S. airlines — currently are required to pay inconvenienced passengers, well, pretty much nothing.

Plenty of travelers want Maloway’s bill to pass. Not surprisingly, Canada's airlines are dead-set against it. They claim the fees are “grossly punitive” and that passage of the bill would “lower passenger safety” and cause “detrimental consequences not only for airlines, but also for passengers.”

So in an effort to derail and deflect the Passengers’ Bill of Rights, Air Canada, Air Canada Jazz, WestJet and Air Transat formed the National Airlines Council of Canada and drew up their own, milder set of rules (referred to as “tariffs” in Canada).

Called flight rights, these tariffs would apply to both domestic and international flights. The Canadian Transportation Agency has approval rights on tariffs for international flights only, so the NACC is waiting for the CTA to complete a review.

You have the right to ...
Virtually identical in wording to the “Flight Rights Canada” guidelines that the government asked the airlines to voluntarily adopt last September, the proposed policies would differ only in that the rules will be legally binding and enforceable.

And what are the airlines promising? Well, in addition to vowing to make “reasonable efforts” to inform passengers of delays and schedule changes, they offer some specific actions they’ll take whenever luggage is misplaced or lost and whenever flights are delayed, overbooked or canceled.

For example:

  • If a flight is delayed more than four hours, an airline will give passengers meal vouchers;
  • If a flight is delayed more than eights hours and involves an overnight stay, the airline will pay for hotel stays;
  • If passengers are already on an airplane when delays set in, then the airlines promise to offer refreshments “if it is safe, practical and timely to do so.” And if a delay exceeds 90 minutes “and circumstances permit,” passengers will be given “the option of disembarking from the aircraft until it is time to depart.”

That last provision is what interests Kate Hanni, the executive director the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights. Hanni has been lobbying for passenger-friendly policies in the U.S. since she was stuck on a tarmac for nearly nine hours in 2006.

Hanni hopes at least one (if not all) of the three current air passenger rights-related bills before U.S. Congress will become law, and she is closely following the progress of MP Maloway’s proposed legislation.

Hanni believes the Canadian airlines’ alternative proposal is so loophole-ridden and caveat-rich that it will be all but useless. Still, she says she’s encouraged by a line in the proposed rules that she interprets as an “admission from Canada’s airlines that 90 minutes is long enough to hold people hostage in narrow metal tubes on the tarmac.”

Better yet, she thinks the phrase “until it is time to depart” means that the airlines actually intend to get passengers off the ground even if the plane returns to the gate. To date, says Hanni, airlines and their trade associations here and in Canada have tried “to scare the public by saying if they return to a gate they’ll never depart.”

What happens next?
So will flight rights leave the gate? Gary Petsikas, president of the National Airlines Council of Canada, says the airlines have already adopted the rules for flights within Canada and are just waiting for the CTA to make a ruling on applying the tariffs to international flights. CTA spokesperson Marc Comeau says the review is underway and that a decision should come down on or before June 8.

But even if the tariffs are approved, the push to pass the more stringent Air Passengers’ Bill of Rights may press on. If passed, NACC’s Petsikas says he can’t really say what will happen to airline fares. “The industry is already working on razor-thin margins. That bill could tip some airlines over into bankruptcy.”

The bottom line? The Canadian Airlines’ Flight Rights plan seems sort of “lite.” The Air Passenger’s Bill of Rights act before the Canadian Parliament may be a bit heavy-handed.

But even if all airlines in North America adopt rules giving air passengers real protection, there will inevitably be extraordinary situations when travelers end up stuck at an airport or on an airplane.

Which goes to show, once again, that a well-mannered traveler’s best protection is being prepared.

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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