A bill before the Senate best-known for bolstering airline customer rights could double the amount of time airlines can keep travellers on the tarmac without food or water, and cancel payouts for certain delays or cancellations, according to an air passenger rights advocate.

Gabor Lukacs argues Bill C-49, the proposed overhaul of the Canada Transportation Act, claws back existing rights for airline passengers while limiting carriers’ accountability to the public.

“Senators have heard a lot, more than an earful, from the airline industry, but very little from actual travellers,” he told CTVNews.ca on Tuesday. “It’s quite clear that this whole legislation is meant to serve the airlines, not the public interest.”

Lukacs said his letter-writing campaign aimed at swaying senators to amend provisions related to tarmac delays and customer compensation has compelled more than 70,000 consumers to contact the Standing Senate Committee on Transport, and Senators in each province. The campaign started on Feb. 25.

If Bill C-49 receives royal assent in its current form, “minimum compensation” will only be required for delays, cancellation or denial of boarding “within the carrier’s control.” But no such reference exists for issues within the carrier’s control that involve “mechanical malfunctions” and “safety purposes.”

“If airlines are allowed to not pay compensation for anything that they can label as a safety issue, than any first-year law student will be able to argue that they owe no compensation for anything,” he said. “I have significant concerns about it. Not only because of the lack of consumer protection, also because in the absence of accountability of that nature, the airlines have less incentive to properly maintain their fleet.”

Similarly, Bill C-49 only references carrier obligations for “tarmac delays over three hours, including the obligation to provide timely information and assistance to passengers, as well as the minimum standards of treatment of passengers.”

“That is a dramatic increase, doubling the time an airline can keep you on the tarmac without food or water from 90 minutes to three hours,” Lukacs said.

He notes several other groups, including the Consumers' Association of Canada, Council of Canadians with Disabilities, and the Ontario Civil Liberties Association are also speaking out against Bill C-49.

“Although this bill was sold and advertised to the public as a passenger’s bill, after senators questioned Transport Minister Marc Garneau on Dec. 12, he was forced to concede that the passenger bill was not in Bill C-49,” Lukacs said.

Liberal Sen. Terry Mercer questioned the merits of the bill at the Dec. 12, 2017 meeting of the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications.

“I am concerned about the things that aren't in the bill . . . especially the things you say that are in the bill. For example, the passenger bill of rights. It's talked about all the time, and people feel very comfortable about it, but it's not there. It’s a promise for regulation in the future,” he said to Garneau before the committee. “If you're talking about it being in, why isn't it there?”

Garneau blamed the media for the perception that the legislation, once passed, would itself enact a passenger bill of rights, rather than simply clear the way for one.

The bill, as it stands, delegates regulation-making powers to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA). Lukacs has long-argued the CTA is too cozy with the airlines.

“What troubles me further is that court documents reveal that the Canada Transportation Agency has been talking to airlines about what should be the regulations, even though the bill hasn’t passed yet,” he said. “If you ask me what is happening, it’s very simple. The airline lobby.”

Lukacs is expected to testify before the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications on March 20.

With a file from The Canadian Press