Despite having one of the most unenviable jobs out there, the agency charged with resolving disputes between airlines and disgruntled passengers has traditionally kept a low profile.
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“I think in 2016, given how quickly conditions are changing, the organization needs to be agile and it needs to be well engaged to do its job effectively,” said Streiner, whose 25-year public service career included a stint as assistant deputy minister at Transport Canada.
“It didn’t need those qualities as much in eras when the world wasn’t moving so fast,” he added, pointing to globalization, technology and rising customer expectations as the three biggest trends that are reshaping the transportation industry.
The CTA is an independent regulator that sets rules and resolves disputes relating to air, rail and marine transportation, including quarrels between airlines and passengers and railways and shippers. The agency resolved 923 disputes in 2014-15, with 91 per cent of those related to air travel.
But Streiner said not everyone with a complaint is aware that the agency has the tools to help them.
“One concern I have is that parties may simply not be aware of the fact that we’ve got a service available to help them,” he said.
This can result in needlessly costly legal battles or disputes that go unresolved. It can also result in complaints that shouldn’t have occurred in the first place, he said.
For example, many consumers are confused by airlines’ tariffs — the contracts that lay out the rights and responsibilities of air carriers and their passengers, including what the airline is required to do if your luggage gets lost, if your flight is delayed or if you get bumped.
“We have an accumulation of experience from consumers that some people find the existing tariffs hard to follow,” Streiner said.
“So maybe we need to look at whether or not we modify the regulations around tariffs in order to ensure that the terms and conditions of carriage are clear to the traveller.”
Air Canada and WestJet Airlines Ltd. both said they are open to working with the CTA.
The bulk of complaints that are brought to the agency are from air travellers. In 2014-15, the CTA resolved 841 air-travel disputes, with most of those related to flight disruptions and delayed or lost baggage. If the CTA finds an airline at fault, it can direct it to compensate the passenger.
Streiner’s hope is that more clarity in airlines’ tariffs will lead to fewer complaints.
“If basically what you’re complaining about is the airline didn’t treat you well but then, look, it was already there in the tariff, they did exactly what they’re supposed to do in the tariff, well, the lesson there is that you should know what the contract terms are at the outset,” Streiner said.
To that end, the agency has produced a series of videos explaining what tariffs are and how passengers can deal with common problems like ticketing issues, lost baggage and flight delays. These can be found on the agency’s website and on YouTube, and Streiner hopes to begin screening them in airports soon.
But Gabor Lukacs, an air passenger rights advocate who has spent the last decade taking on the airlines through the CTA and the courts, said the awareness-raising effort doesn’t go nearly far enough.
In fact, Lukacs said he believes the agency is too closely tied to the airline industry and doesn’t tend to act in consumers’ best interests.
“The Canadian Transportation Agency has been, in a very subtle but clear way, turning passengers who have complaints away and discouraging them from making complaints,” Lukacs said in an interview.
He pointed to a 2014 ruling where the CTA found that Lukacs couldn’t file a complaint against Delta Air Lines Inc. over its treatment of obese passengers because he is not obese himself. That case is currently before the Federal Court.
Lukacs is particularly critical of the relationship between CTA’s vice-chairman, Sam Barone, and the industry. Barone was previously CEO of the Air Transport Association of Canada, which represents commercial airlines (but not Air Canada or WestJet).
“It is very troubling,” he said. “I’m sure that their expertise may be valuable in other areas such as railways … but insofar as it concerns airlines, in my respectful view, they do not serve Canadians. They serve big business, they serve the industry, and they are betraying the mandate for which they have been appointed.”
Spokeswoman Laurie Maybury pointed out that the CTA resolved more than 750 air-travel complaints in 2015-16, with over 95 per cent of those resolved through facilitation.
She also stressed that members of the agency are appointed by Cabinet and subject to the oversight of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.
One concern I have is that parties may simply not be aware of the fact that we’ve got a service available to help them
“Many tribunal members have past work experience in the transportation sector,” Maybury said in an email. “Past work experience alone does not constitute bias or conflict of interest and does not prevent a member from making impartial and neutral decisions.”
Although airline disputes tend to get the most attention, Streiner said he’s also focused on helping railways and shippers resolve disputes through mediation instead of the more costly and time-consuming adjudication process.
“I think the greatest opportunity to move, to actually make progress, is in the rail-shipper world where we don’t see very many cases going into mediation,” he said.
Another priority of Streiner’s is improving transportation services for people with disabilities, and he’s examining whether the CTA should create binding regulations to protect disabled people, instead of the voluntary codes of practice that currently exist.
These are only ideas at this stage, but Streiner said whatever he ends up doing during his tenure, it will be done with a “high degree of engagement and consultation.”
“If I’m able to add a few tools to the toolkit or sharpen a few of the tools and make folks out there more aware that we exist and those services are available, then from my perspective, that’s success,” he said.
Streiner will speak about his work Thursday in a speech to the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto.