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Canada’s Transport Minister, Omar Alghabra, along with CEOs of Sunwing, Air Canada, and WestJet, and CEOs of Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal airports, testified before the House of Commons transport committee on Jan. 12 about the chaos experienced by air and rail passengers over the recent holiday season.
While many air passengers experienced significant delays or canceled flights, others were left stranded in other countries without clear communication as to when they could return home. Across Canada’s major airports, passengers could be seen sleeping on the floor while they remained uncertain about their travel plans.
The airlines and airport authorities said the severe winter weather in several provinces between Dec. 18 to 24 contributed to the disruptions, but committee members are hoping to determine how the air travel industry can better prepare for similar situations in the future.
Sunwing passengers — who were stranded in sun destinations — were moved from hotel to hotel, in some cases left without rooms, and were provided with misleading information regarding their return home. The airline said it canceled several flights due to the weather, “which limited our ability to reposition aircraft and crew to other airports to help alleviate the backlog in flights.”
Sunwing also noted that the pilot shortage was a contributing factor to the delays and cancelations. In late 2022, the airline proposed a plan to use Canada’s temporary foreign worker program to hire more pilots. However, Unifor expressed safety concerns over this plan, stating that Sunwing would be hiring pilots “from countries with less rigorous training requirements,” and that the pilots would not even “meet the company’s own training requirements.” Ultimately, the airline scrapped that plan in early December.
Air Canada noted the fact that delays “in one part of the country [have] a knock-on effect across our network.” Kevin O’Connor, VP of system operations control at Air Canada, described icicles that were several feet long on aircraft in Vancouver, deicing fluid that was ineffective in Calgary due to extreme cold, and issues with baggage systems in Toronto.
Alghabra emphasized that “the circumstances many travelers faced . . . were completely unacceptable.”
Also noteworthy is the fact that this was the first holiday season in three years where pandemic-related travel restrictions were lifted, and passengers were looking forward to traveling over the holidays again.
Tamara Vrooman, president and CEO at Vancouver Airport Authority, said in response to the poorly executed travel process in December: “YVR is undertaking an enhanced after-action review. . . . We have engaged KPMG and global aviation planning and advisory firm, Arup, to assist in this review. YVR will also be engaging the travelling public to hear directly about their experiences and suggestions for improvement relating to information and support during the December travel disruption.”
Both of those processes are expected to begin this week.
Additionally, Vrooman said the airport has “implemented initial measures to help ensure a similar situation does not occur while the review is ongoing. These measures include greater communication and coordination with airlines around gating, towing, and communication with passengers.”
During the committee meeting, Alghabra was questioned by Melissa Lantsman, Member of Parliament for Thornhill, on why he waited so long to address the holiday travel disruptions. Alghabra stated that “our government is not hiding,” and confirmed that he was briefed “daily . . . sometimes hourly, on what was happening.”
Lantsman said the passenger protections put in place by the government “have failed to actually protect passengers,” and that “a Canadian that flies British Airways to the U.K. is better protected than one who flies WestJet to the U.K.”
She added that Alghabra is responsible for such rules, and he has “the tools to fix it.”
Canadian airlines are currently obligated to meet Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPRs), despite any weather delays or other disruptions. If an airline does not meet these regulations — for example, not providing passengers with a reason for delayed or canceled flights, or failing to respond to compensation complaints within 30 days — it can be fined by the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA).
However, according to a Global News report, some committee members have questioned whether the fines are high enough to encourage airlines to obey the regulations.
Following the latest travel disruptions, Sunwing Travel Group’s president of tour operations, Andrew Dawson, confirmed that the airline had received 7,000 complaints as of Jan. 12, regarding “compensation, extra expenses incurred, [and] refunds where passengers chose to travel home at their own expense where they were able,” he said.
Sunwing said it is “actively accepting claims for compensation,” which can be submitted for review through the airline’s website.
Alghabra has noted that changes are expected in the future to strengthen the air passenger protections currently in place. He said he is “consulting internally within Transport Canada [and] externally with our partners” — and will also be welcoming recommendations from the committee — regarding changes to the APPRs.
“Once we have a draft proposal, we are going to table it in the House of Commons where Canadians and other stakeholders will be able to offer input.”
The Jan. 12 meeting was the first of several hearings expected to be held by the transport committee regarding the holiday travel chaos.