CBC News called to ask me what I think about a proposed Bill of Rights for airline passengers in Canada. Somewhat surprisingly, Canada trails the USA and many European countries who guarantee that passengers are compensated for delays, lost baggage and extended time on the tarmac. Passengers in Canada currently have to rely on the kindness of airline staff sorting out messes they’re not responsible for, and insurance policies with print so fine you’d need a magnifying glass to claim any benefit. Throw in irate passengers foaming at the mouth and you can see how unfortunate mishaps can escalate in vein-popping frustration.
Personally, in over a thousand flights around the world, my luggage has only ever been delayed three times. Not lost mind you, just delayed. My film crew arrived in Colombia to film the first episode of Word Travels, but our bags didn’t meet us at the conveyer belt. Fortunately, we had all our camera gear with us, so we just hit the ground running and bought a couple ponchos as a wardrobe change. The bags showed up next morning. In Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific gave me an overnight bag to see me through the 24-hour delay of my bags arriving. In Ethiopia, I took seventeen rides around the conveyer belt before whatever diety decides these things released my backpack from the gut of Addis Ababa International. It’s worth remembering that, according to the company behind the World Tracer System, just 7 bags per 1000 passengers get mishandled (although that does translate into over 24 million mishandled items a year). Still, there’s a 99% chance that your bag will make it through the labyrinth of airline travel and meet you on the other side, and if it doesn’t, it meets up you with shortly afterwards. To me, that’s as marvelous a fact as modern flight. The Wifi on the plane doesn’t work? Watch Louis CK’s classic take on that below. Flights gets delayed. Screws need to be tightened. Weather causes havoc. It’s been my experience that patience, understanding, and a smile go a long way towards airline staff helping you out. If someone screamed at me, I’d go out of my way to ensure I help the understanding passenger behind them first. Remember, there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes!
As I explain in the interview, a Passenger Bill of Rights will help Canadian passengers regain a sense of control. The entire flying process can be nervewracking because of the control we relinquish from the moment we arrive at the airport. We place our trust in a lot of people (and a lot of equipment) to work efficiently and effectively so we can get to that meeting/beach/wedding on time. Unfortunately, there’s simply not much we can do when things go wrong. Yet knowing there’s some form of compensation, be it a hotel room, meal or financial compensation, at least gives the semblance that we’re in control of… something. And airlines should be held to task if they slack off on performance or make promises they can’t keep.
Back to CBC News. I was staring into a black monitor and didn’t know I was live for the first few seconds. With a 3-week old baby keeping me up all night, I look like I just got off a red-eye flight from Ulan Bator. I was asked to share a story of an airline mishap, and so brought up the time photographer Jeff Topham and I joked how funny it would be if the airline lost our bags on the way to Antarctica. And sure enough, Jeff’s bags never made it from Toronto to Buenos Aires. He showed up for a 10-day expedition cruise to the icy wastelands of the seventh continent with just jeans and a T-shirt. But with a quick (albeit expensive) shop in Ushuaia and loaner gear from the crew, it all turned out great. His bags were waiting for us at the hotel on our return. Before my segment, I listened to several news reports about upheaval and chaos. As soon as the interview was over, I realized that I probably said the last thing people expect to hear on the news: That despite occasional frustrations and mishaps, it always works out in the end.