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Passenger bill of rights may let airlines ‘off the hook’ without an ombudsman: advocate

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A consumer rights advocate is frustrated Canada’s proposed new air passenger bill of rights doesn’t include plans for an independent body that will review passenger complaints.

Highlights of the proposed new regulations were released earlier this week.

“The most polite thing I could say is that we’re disappointed in what is being produced. After all this time — it’s been decades in the making — and really it’s like a bucket of muddy water,” said Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers Association of Canada.

“One of the things we would have liked to have seen, in fact I think it’s essential, is some sort of an ombudsman structure so people can put their complaints into an independent arbitrator. There’s not much in there for consumers.”

The U.S. and Europe have had passenger rights regulations in place for years, and Cran jokes that after this bill is put in place Canadians still won’t have them — they’ll have an “airline bill of rights” instead.

Right now, airlines set out their own terms and conditions, and if they break their own rules, a person can complain to the Canadian Transportation Agency, an independent tribunal run by the federal government.

Consumer groups have long complained that the CTA does little to enforce the payment of those tariffs, and that most Canadians don’t understand airlines’ obligations or know how to file a claim.

The new regulations would put more black-and-white rules in place for airlines — for example that passengers must be compensated a set amount in cash for delays, or airlines could face big penalties — but enforcement will still be kicked back to Canadian Transportation Agency staff.

Law ‘should protect passengers’

“I think there are a lot of things in there that probably let them off the hook and they’ll be decided in the favour of the airlines rather than the airline passengers … it’s not a matter of compensating passengers, it’s a matter of making it difficult for the airlines to survive if they don’t conform to what’s supposed to be the law, which again, should protect passengers,” Cran said.

The CTA had a complaints commissioner back in the early 2000s, but the position was eventually eliminated and its highly publicized annual reports faded away.

David Western, the former director of tariff enforcement and complaints with the CTA, said he was essentially the commissioner’s right-hand-man.

Past commissioners made ‘huge difference’

“I think that the [complaints] commissioner made a huge difference in terms of customer service from the airlines,” he said.

Western said that when Canadian Airlines and Air Canada amalgamated in 1999, there were thousands of complaints about the level of customer service from Air Canada, but over the two commissioners’ terms, service improved enormously.

“We were getting satisfaction on about 75 per cent of the complaints that had not been resolved satisfactorily by the airlines.”

The trick, according to Western, was that the commissioner put out an annual written report — and companies really, really didn’t want to be profiled in it.

He said one commissioner, an ex-NHL referee, loved to “blow the whistle” on cases where customers hadn’t been treated fairly.

“I think that there are advantages to having a readily identifiable spokesperson or an ombudsperson who people can recognize and turn to,” he said.

However Ian Jack of the Canadian Automobile Association says Canadians should see how the new bill plays out before worrying about adding another layer of bureaucracy.

Too soon to say

The CAA books about 700,000 trips each year, trips that Jack stresses aren’t for business travellers or frequent flyers, who are often taken care of more quickly when there’s an issue with a flight.

“It’s a brand new regime and I think we have to see how it works until you know before we decide that it’s not working,” Jack said.

“While the regime that’s been proposed by the government is far from perfect … the fact is, this is a solid advance over what we have had, which is a chaotic series of semi-hidden rules that nobody really knew about, where people who flew a lot were treated a lot better than people who didn’t.”

The CTA says there are currently no plans for an ombudsman, and if facilitation and mediation aren’t conclusive, the complaint will then go through an adjudication process.

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‘Too soon to celebrate’ Ottawa’s low case count, says Etches

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Ottawa Public Health (OPH) logged just 11 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the lowest daily total since Sept. 1.

Because of the lag between testing and reporting, the low number could simply reflect low turnout at the city’s testing sites on weekends — all month, new case counts have been lower on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 

During a virtual news conference Tuesday, the city’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said she doesn’t read too much into a single day’s report.

“I don’t think we can make too much of 11. Actually, it could be a lot higher tomorrow — I would expect that, on average,” she said. “It’s too soon to celebrate.”

Provincewide, public health officials reported 1, 249 new cases Tuesday.

OPH also declared 62 cases resolved Tuesday, lowering the number of known active cases in the city to 462. Two more people have died, both in care homes currently experiencing outbreaks, raising the city’s COVID-19 death toll to 361. 

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Santa Claus isn’t coming to Ottawa’s major malls this year

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Santa Claus may still be coming to town this Christmas, but he won’t be dropping by any of Ottawa’s major malls, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday, Cadillac Fairview said Santa won’t be making an appearance at any of its 19 malls across Canada, including Rideau Centre in downtown Ottawa. On Tuesday, Bayshore and St. Laurent shopping centres confirmed they, too, are scrapping the annual tradition.

“Due to the evolution of the situation in regards to COVID-19, we have made the difficult decision to cancel our Santa Program and Gift Wrap Program this year,” Bayshore spokesperson Sara Macdonald wrote in an email to CBC.

Macdonald said parent company Ivanhoé Cambridge cancelled all holiday activities “due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the country.”

Macdonald said families that had already booked an appointment to visit Santa will receive an email with more information.  

Virtual visits with Santa

Rideau Centre said based on customer research and discussions with public health officials, its North Pole is going online this year.

“Children will be able to have a private chat with Santa,” said Craig Flannagan, vice-president of marketing for Cadillac Fairview. “You’ll also be able to join a 15-minute storytime with Santa over Facebook Live.” 

At Place d’Orléans Shopping Centre, visitors are invited to take a “selfie with Santa” — actually, a life-size cutout of Santa Pierre, the man who’s been playing Santa at the east end mall for years.

“We understand that this is not ideal, but in lieu of this tradition we will be doing what we can to maintain and encourage holiday cheer,” according to a statement on the mall’s Facebook page.

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Ottawa Bylaw breaks up two large parties in Ottawa over the weekend

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Bylaw is investigating social gatherings of more than 10 people in private homes across Ottawa last weekend.

Mayor Jim Watson tells Newstalk 580 CFRA that Ottawa Bylaw broke-up two house parties over the weekend, with 20 to 25 people at each party.

“That’s the kind of stupidity that angers me, that’s where the bulk of the transmissions are taking place, if we exclude the tragedy of the long-term care homes; it’s these house parties with unrelated people,” said Watson on Newstalk 580 CFRA’s Ottawa at Work with Leslie Roberts.

“The message doesn’t seem to be getting through, particularly to some young people who think they’re invincible.”

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Bylaw and Regulatory Services Director Roger Chapman says, “There are still ongoing investigations from this past weekend that could result in charges.”

Chapman says recent investigations led to two charges being issued for social gatherings of more than 10 people in a private residence in contravention of the Reopening Ontario Act.

“In one case, up to 30 individuals were observed attending a house party in Ward 18 on Oct. 24,” said Chapman.

“The second charge was issued following a house party in Ward 16 on Oct. 31, where up to 16 individuals were observed to be in attendance.”

The fine is $880 for hosting an illegal gathering.

Alta Vista is Ward 18, while Ward 16 is River Ward.

Ottawa Bylaw has issued 24 charges for illegal gatherings since the start of the pandemic.

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