Airline executives say winter weather the culprit of messy holiday travel season

MPs heard the complaints ranged from cancelled flights to passengers trying to recoup costs they incurred out of pocket

By Stephanie Taylor and Mickey Djuric in Ottawa

Airlines executives offered a mix of explanation and apology Thursday, as they laid the blame for the chaotic holiday travel season on Mother Nature.

Representatives from Sunwing Airlines, WestJet and Air Canada appeared before the federal transport committee to explain to MPs what happened in the days before and after Christmas, when thousands of passengers saw their flights delayed or cancelled. 

Committee members directed many of their queries at Sunwing, the vacation airline that left hundreds of Canadians stranded in Mexico when their flights home were cancelled.

Airline president Len Corrado opened his remarks to the committee with an apology. 

“We failed to deliver to the level that we had expected and that Canadians had expected from us over this holiday season,” he said.

Corrado added that winter storms caused massive delays at airports in Quebec and Ontario and shut down Vancouver’s airport almost completely.

Sunwing drew further ire for announcing on Dec. 29 it was cancelling all flights out of Saskatchewan until early February. Corrado said Thursday its application to bring 63 foreign temporary pilots on board for the winter was denied leaving it unable to staff all its flights.

They first learned their application had failed around Dec. 9 and tried to find contingencies before announcing the cancellations on Dec. 29, the committee heard. 

Liberal MP Pam Damoff said Sunwing should not have booked passengers on flights without confirmed plans to have them properly staffed.

A separate Sunwing official also told MPs the company has received 7,000 complaints, although it isn’t clear over what period of time.

The complaints ranged from cancelled flights to passengers trying to recoup costs they incurred out of pocket, MPs heard. 

Stranded passengers in Mexico told the media they were shuffled between hotels and struggled to get answers from the airline about when they might be able to get home.

In calling for the transport committee to probe the holiday travel debacle, MPs said they were hearing from passengers stuck in airports around the country who couldn’t get answers from their airlines about when they would be rebooked.

Sunwing vice-president Andrew Gibbons said the holiday problems showed the airline it must communicate better with its passengers.

“We have heard you and others and from our guests, specifically, that our guest communication was lacking. So we’re going to do a better job of that,” Gibbons said.

Gibbons pushed back against calls from MPs that the holiday travel headaches Canadians experienced is reason to strength existing air passenger protections regulations. Under those regulations passengers can seek compensation from airlines when flights are delayed or cancelled.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra is testifying Thursday afternoon. He has already said he wants to beef up the rules with new legislation that could be coming as soon as this spring. 

Federal Conservatives and New Democrats agree the rules must change, including to force airlines to compensate passengers automatically, rather than travellers having to file a complaint when their flight is delayed or cancelled. 

“We do not believe the priority right now should be additional penalties on the only group that has any accountability and regulations that govern it,” he said. “It should be to apply it equally to everyone as the top priority.”

“This is not about blame-game, it is simply about improving the system overall, he says. 

Representatives from Air Canada and WestJet told MPs that they did their best to brace for a busy holiday season, but had to grapple with the arrival of a winter storm that hammered airports. 

NDP MP Taylor Bachrach pressed Air Canada officials to explain how passengers ended up stuck on the tarmac at Vancouver’s airport for more than 11 hours. 

Kevin O’Connor, Air Canada’s vice-president of systems operations control, said they did not have a safe way to allow passengers a chance to disembark.

“The airport could not keep up with proper apron clearing. Employees could not tow aircraft. We could not disembark using air stairs onto an open surface and transport the passengers to the terminal. All these were explored, all these questions were asked,” O’Connor said.

“Nobody wanted us to have customers on board for 11 hours or any time of a lengthy delay.”

Banner image: WestJet Airlines Ltd. Vice-President, External Affairs, Andrew Gibbons, arrives to appear as a witness at a House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure, and Communities in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2023.

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