Tuesday’s federal budget included a number of proposals aimed at improving air travel after a year of chaos at Canada’s airports. But advocates for both airlines and passengers are skeptical about the measures.
Ottawa has earmarked an extra $1.8 billion over the next five years for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) to “maintain and increase its level of service” in airport screening and overall security.
But those improvements to airport security are coming at a price to Canadian travellers. The government is set to increase the Air Travel Security Charge — one of many fees that flyers pay when they buy a plane ticket — by nearly 33 per cent next year.
First implemented in 2002 after the Sept. 11 attacks, the security fees have not increased since 2010, when they jumped by more than 52 per cent to their current level.
Starting in May 2024, the added fee on a one-way ticket within Canada will increase to $9.94, on a flight to the U.S. to $16.89, and on a trip overseas to $34.42.
Ian Jack, a spokesperson for the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), a non-profit travel agency, said the government should show they can improve security screening before they introduce new fees.
“The system is in such a sad state right now that we think they should be more focused on fixing the system than on nickel-and-diming travellers for a few extra dollars here and there that by themselves are not going to fix the system,” he said.
Jeff Morrison, president of the National Airlines Council of Canada, said he’s happy to see the government investing more in airport security but disappointed it’s coming with an increased fee. He argued that the extra charge can put Canadian airlines at a competitive disadvantage with their international rivals.
“Over the past several months we’ve seen this almost kind of drip, drip, drip effect of a long list of fees and charges that are getting increased,” he said, citing increased airport and navigation fees airlines have to pay.
“It’s a bit ironic when the federal government was saying [Tuesday’s] budget was meant to address affordability, but yet it was contributing to this slow march towards increasing fares.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended the increase to the fee Wednesday, arguing that the only other way to fund investments would be to increase taxes across the board.
WATCH | Trudeau defends increase to airport security fees
“There need to be investments to improve the experience of air travellers,” Trudeau said. “But we feel it’s only fair that those Canadians who are travelling are shouldering a little bit more of that burden, because the alternative would be all Canadians would be contributing with their tax dollars.”
Jack said the government should be considering the benefits of an efficient air travel system when deciding how to pay for its improvements.
“Air transport is a general public good,” he said. “It benefits all the people who travel. But it also benefits the overall economy, which ultimately benefits all Canadians.”
Morrison said he’d rather the government use the rent airlines pay to federally regulated airports to invest in improvements to security and to airport infrastructure, such as “outdated” baggage handling equipment and tarmac.
The budget is also promising to improve air passenger protection rules to “ensure that passengers are fairly compensated for delays and cancellations.”
The quasi-judicial Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) is tasked with enforcing rules that require an airline to compensate passengers when a flight is delayed or cancelled for a reason that is within the airline’s control. But the agency has been overwhelmed by complaints as more and more passengers cry foul over flight disruptions.
While the Liberals committed $75.9 million in additional funding to the CTA last month, Tuesday’s budget unveiled plans to introduce a “a regulatory charge” that would allow the agency “to recover from airlines the cost of adjudicating passenger complaints.”
The charge is meant to act as an incentive for airlines to resolve passenger complaints before going to the CTA, a government official told CBC on background. The official added that the details are still being worked out and could be subject to change.
Jack said the charge might help reduce the amount of complaints going to the CTA, but it will depend on the details.
“This system is in so much trouble that no one or two things is going to fix it,” he said. “These may be steps in the right direction. We’ll have to wait and see when the actual announcement comes exactly how they’re going to go about this.”
Morrison said he also would like to see more details about the regulatory charge.
“Not all of the claims that go to the CTA are because the airline is at fault. It’s just because the passenger disagrees with it. So what it’s essentially doing by putting a fee on the airline for claims that go to the CTA is putting an additional financial burden for things that may or may not have anything to do with airline responsibility,” he said.
“At some point, this all spirals upward into higher and higher airline fares.”
In addition to the regulatory charge, the budget indicated that the government is looking to change to the CTA complaint process to make it more efficient.
A spokesperson for Transport Minister Omar Alghabra’s office said the government plans to introduce legislation that will implement the proposed changes this spring.