By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa
A parliamentary committee voted Monday to launch a study into the causes behind Canada’s chaotic holiday travel season and to hear not only from industry giants, but also from some of the passengers who saw their plans upended.
Members of the federal transport committee met to discuss the scope of the study, which all agreed was necessary given the widespread disruptions that plagued thousands of passengers who travelled by air and train last month and into January.
In the lead up to Christmas Day, a winter storm swept across parts of Canada, complicating travel plans for both providers and passengers during one of the busiest travel times of the year.
But those sitting around the virtual committee table focused less on the weather than on the service passengers received.
Some said they heard directly from constituents who were unable to get answers from airlines such as Sunwing after having their flights cancelled, and found themselves sleeping on airport floors and shuffled between hotels. Others ended up stuck on trains for hours.
“Passengers were an afterthought,” said Conservative MP Mark Strahl.
“The system completely failed.”
Committee MPs voted to invite representatives from Air Canada, WestJet, Sunwing Airlines and Via Rail to testify, as well as leaders of airport authorities in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
They also requested to hear from affected travellers, passengers’ advocates and the Canadian Transportation Agency, a regulator that the committee heard is facing a backlog of more than 30,000 complaints.
NDP MP Taylor Bachrach said the regulatory system in place to protect airline passengers and stipulate when companies must provide compensation for delays and cancellations is “deeply flawed.”
He said he wants to hear directly from Transport Minister Omar Alghabra about when he plans to table changes to the current regime — something the minister suggested could be coming in media interviews last week.
Federal Conservatives say Alghabra must answer for the fact this was the second travel season in a row in which thousands of passengers saw their trips interrupted by lost bags and delayed or cancelled flights.
The first was last summer, which marked the first major return of domestic and international air travel in Canada since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March 2020.
At the time, airlines and airports said they were struggling with labour shortages brought on by travel restrictions during the first two years of the pandemic, which led to widespread layoffs.
Before Monday’s meeting, a spokeswoman for Alghabra confirmed his attendance.
“The minister has always appeared at committee when asked. He will be happy to appear and take the committee’s questions,”Nadine Ramadan said in a statement to The Canadian Press.
The study is set to begin Thursday, despite the House of Commons not returning until the end of January.
NDP and Conservative MPs on the transport committee had released a joint letter last week that said launching an investigation was urgent.
That came after Liberal MP Peter Schiefke, the committee’s chair, tweeted that he planned to call Sunwing and Via Rail to appear.
The two companies have been the main focus of travellers’ and political leaders’ complaints.
Hundreds of Sunwing passengers found themselves stranded in Mexico leading up to Christmas Day after the vacation destination airline cancelled their flights home due to poor winter weather.
Several days later, the airline announced that flights in Saskatchewan would be cancelled until early February due to “extenuating circumstances,” drawing the ire of political leaders and passengers. It has since apologized.
In the case of Via Rail, the Crown corporation cancelled trains running between Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto over the Christmas weekend after it said a CN trail derailed on a set of tracks.
Passengers travelling on a train between Ottawa and Toronto were stuck for upwards of 20 hours.
Banner image: Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra appears as a witness at the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2023.