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Bob Wakeham: Airlines need to straighten up and fly right

That a Newfoundlander had to fly to Halifax to argue for airline passengers’ rights is ridiculous, argues Bob Wakeham. —
That a Newfoundlander had to fly to Halifax to argue for airline passengers’ rights is ridiculous, argues Bob Wakeham. — 123RF Stock Photo

A story making the rounds this week concerned the fact that former Conception Bay South Mayor Woodrow French recently made his way to Halifax to appear before a federal government committee working on legislation to improve the lot of airline passengers, those travellers for whom “the friendly skies” are a thing of the past — the distant past.

The news got my attention for a couple of reasons: No. 1, the shocking and disgusting fact that the committee is holding hearings across the country, but not in Newfoundland (requiring French to travel to Halifax at his own expense to communicate his thoughts, and to continue his laudable activism in the area of passengers’ rights); and No. 2, that the quality of air travel has plummeted so far that it requires (and it certainly does) a dramatic alteration in laws to force the airline industry to view its customers as human beings, not a herd of cattle.

Those of us who roar and bawl about the warped perception on the part of so many Canadians — including, I have to admit, those in the news business, but even more significantly, in the business of governance — that the East Coast of the country somehow ends in Halifax, not St. John’s, have been given more ammunition with this latest slap in the face to Newfoundland for our case that much of mainland Canada views this place in a geographically challenged and discriminatory fashion.

How can the feds possibly justify their decision to hunker down in Nova Scotia and not travel over to Newfoundland to listen to airline customers in this part of the country?

I’d go out on a limb, or on a wing, and venture to say that travelling souls who fly in and out of Newfoundland, with our unpredictable weather causing delays, travel re-routes, lost baggage and general travel turmoil, have a lot to say about piss-poor treatment by the airlines, and have arguably more legitimate complaints per capita about air travel than any other area of the country, and deserve the right to sit directly in front of this legislative committee and vent.

As a matter of fact, French himself, if memory serves me correctly, launched his own campaign to improve service for air travellers after planeloads of Newfoundlanders were mistreated one particular Christmas season after bad weather disrupted flights to and from the province.

It’s to French’s credit, and says a great deal about his doggedness to act on behalf of air travellers, that he would fly — I assume he didn’t drive and was not forced to tolerate the oft-criticized, less than satisfactory, and overpriced ferry service across the Gulf — to Halifax to ensure his views were made known.

Ironic, is it not, that this crowd charged with investigating air travel couldn’t see fit to fly over to Newfoundland for hearings, and, thus, gave second-class status to passengers in this neck of the woods?

But most people here with something to say about airline service haven’t the time nor the money to just head off to the mainland to appear before federal legislators and regulators mandated to improve the way in which air passengers are accommodated.

Ironic, is it not, that this crowd charged with investigating air travel couldn’t see fit to fly over to Newfoundland for hearings, and, thus, gave second-class status to passengers in this neck of the woods? Boggles the mind.

Having said all that, it goes almost without saying that any effort to improve the way the airline business handles its customers (who pay a mint to fly) is a step in the right direction, one long overdue; and we can only hope that ultimately this committee’s work will result in laws with some fangs, rules that will force airlines to come even half close to that long-ago era when it was an absolute joy to fly.

Because of my dad’s 40-year-plus career with T.W.A., I was introduced to air travel at a very young age, and not just the flying experience itself, but having a chance to eavesdrop on hundreds of conversations in our home among airline types.

All of us offspring of airline employees flew for free, or at considerably reduced rates, back in the day, and accumulated travel miles that would be near impossible to calculate.

But in terms of quality (other than the odd bumpy flight on a noisy Vanguard between, say, Gander and St. John’s), flying was just a decided pleasure, and passengers were treated by everyone connected with the airlines as if they were special, to be fed well, made comfortable, and accommodated and given preferential treatment when there were delays or cancellations.

Not today, though.

On a recent flight to Toronto, my wife, mother and I had seating arrangements only a sardine would embrace, were invited to gobble down a meal during a three-hour-plus flight of a dozen pretzels and a small glass of Coke, and had to put up with a look of scorn from a flight attendant when a request was made for a full can. (We could have paid a fortune for a sandwich, but the attendants ran out of those delicacies before getting halfway down the aisle).

And while making connections for flights to the States, we were treated by way too many personnel at the departure gates with, at best, total apathy, and, at worst, total disdain.

Friendly skies? Not exactly.

Good for you, Mr. French.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com

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