Roger writing the LAWmag
Mar 2013

Airport Law: Much Ado About Much

At first glance, there us no law at an airport. People flying around, lineups, coffee stands, bookstores and eateries... To the untrained eye, chaos, certainly, but little apparent law.

The airport employees, though, know only whichever part of the federal Aeronautics Act (RSC 1985, c A-2) they need to know.

So do I, a little late but it wasn't really my fault. It was the senior partners who should of known better.

Wet behind the ears is not a good pre-condition to rookie forays into prosecution work. Forestville, 1985, and I was charged with prosecuting a snowmobiler who had crossed an airfield, an offense under the Aeronautics Act. My first prosecution ever.

For those not familiar with large, bulky, verbose and rife with companion regulation, federal statutes, I envy you.

airport lawI truly do.

I don't tend to read the federal Income Tax Act anymore (used to every Easter) but when you are a rookie and given your first case to act as Crown counsel, you feel like God, print the statute off (at night, about 1,000 pages) and spend days reading it with a highlighter and drinking coffee. I even bound the damn thing for future reference as an airport law guy.

And, of course, I chased down a few "he rode his snowmobile over an airfield therefore he's guilty" cases.

Trust me. I know airport law. This place is not just a very clean, orderly triage station for the air traveler. The reality is that few places have more law hanging over them, or are more regulated, than airports. Signs are ubiquitous and the loudspeakers announce, always in DEFCON 2 voices - not unlike the voice of Madame Justice [surname redacted] of the Supreme Court of British Columbia last week when she wondered about the cellphone that rang shrilly in her courtroom.

These frequent loud airport voices tell you what you can and cannot do, even in the washroom where most humans have figured out since early childhood what to do, and what is not cool (I did say most).

Something about your unattended bag being a felony or an indictable offence is my favorite although taking my shoes off in case I'm wearing exploding shoes is still a pet peeve. Booting up your computer just in case ... not being allowed to bring my Starbucks through the security check ... the new imaging carousel where your have to keep your hands up for an MRI? Take your pick. Lovely law all.

When I die, I'm going to seek out Osama Bin Laden assuming he's ever allowed to visit my neck of the woods in heaven and also assuming he's done with his duties and the 100 virgins. Mr. Bin Laden has single-highhandedly caused a great deal of modern airport law, most of it the low risk stuff like looking for bombs at 6:52 a.m. in the luggage of an extremely handsome lawyer going from Victoria (+10°) to Edmonton (-20°).

airport law 2Anyone on that flight needs to have their brain examined, not their luggage. In Edmonton, they don't just give out the temperature. To make things real fun, local temperature/environmental law has something called "wind chill factor" of which I know little but I'm pretty sure I don't want it.

As you progress through your flight, even the opening spiel from the WestJet flight attendants mention "Transport Canada regulations", even as they tell you how to survive in the event of an unanticipated landing. Five hundred miles an hour, 33,000 feet ... survival? An oxygen mask? I'm no expert, but the little plastic clown-nose mask may not help much except, and that's maybe, to enable that one last phone call.

But: cell phone calls are not allowed on flights. Federal regulation yadayadayada.

For the general public, what order there is in an airport is more a modern variety of sumptuary laws. Sumptuary laws, or laws which try to control personal behavior such as manners and what people eat and drink, are rare in contemprary common and civil law jurisdictions. But this was not always the case.

Some Roman and the Greek laws prohibited kissing in public and the decorating of ceilings or doors. An English law in 1336 prohibited anyone from having more than two courses at any meal. In 1363, the regular British guy faced the Statute of Diet which said that the servants of lords should eat meat or fish once a day (a subsequent amendment to that law, to help a struggling fishery industry, prohibited the eating of red meat on Fridays or Saturdays). That same 1363 sumptuary law also regulated the wearing of silk and purple; the poor (families of servants) were prohibited from wearing silk or fur. Only lords were allowed to wear a jacket that did not cover the knees. Only the Royal Family was allowed to wear purple.1

Sumptuary laws are not dead law everywhere. They are alive and kicking in Muslim law - just ask any women wearing a burka. I mean, ask her if she can ask her husband if she can answer the question and then, what can she say?

Shurb al-khamr seems especially harsh.

Back at the airport, nothing keeps the wheels turning - wings flapping like basic personal manners for which there is no law except spontaneous vigilante justice like the three big Edmonton guys who nicely boxed the little rat who was trying to queue jump at Tim Hortons.

And the smiles! Oh, the smiles! Though admittedly rare at 6:45 a.m., they are the best part of the traverse through a modern airport.

The courtesies were omnipresent, doors opened, places conceded, help offered, fun banter readily taking flight. Beautiful strangers.

None of it law per se and otherwise. And for my money, that's the beauty of what the Canadian Charter of Rights refers to as free and democratic society. Don't need but basic skeletal law to make things hum, and the well-mannered, courteous peope do the rest, no sumptuary laws needed. Even in an airport with its layers of regulatory law.

Vancouver lawyer Brian Day ( took a shot at defining airport law:

"Airport Law is a unique discipline that combines domestic and international aviation law; airport specific legal, environmental, economic, safety and security regulation; and airport business principles that aim to achieve control and economic efficiency."

And in Forestville circa 1985, airport law mattered to Judge Sarto Cloutier of the Quebec Provincial Court when I failed to make my case and faced an ingnonimous directed verdict application by the defence, not something all lawyers would ever admit to.

That's not good. It means that the prosecution's evidence was so shoddy that the judge is asked to shut down the case before the defence enters any evidence. Well, I exagerate but it certainly was a request to give my prformance an "F". I just coudn't link the evidence of a yellow and white bombardier snowmobile on the runway to the defendant. There are thousands of yellow and white bombardier snowmobiles in Forestville every winter circa 1984 and their license plates were covered with a mysterious cold, sticky and white substance.

What the hell. I was a rookie. Had lunch with the judge and defence lawyer after the case broke, late morning in some Forestville eatery and they each had war stories of their own about their trials and tribulations of their first days as a lawyer.

So the next time you're stuck in an airport with some time to kill, crank up and download the Aeronautics Act. It's also a very effective homeopathic hypnotic.

As you walk through an airport, especially in the middle of a snow storm with delays coming fast and furious on the overhead DEPARTURES board, reflect on the esoteric body of law that covers you from the entrance to the tarmac.




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