Following a holiday travel season that saw Canadians stranded abroad, stuck for hours on runways and forced to sleep on airport floors, federal lawmakers questioned airline executives on Thursday about what what went wrong
Severe winter weather was the main culprit, leaders from Sunwing, WestJet and Air Canada told the House of Commons transport committee during an emergency meeting called before Parliament returned later this month.
In opening remarks, Kevin O’Connor, Air Canada’s vice president of system operations control, defended the company’s recent performance in the face of extreme weather that caused “four-foot icicles” in Vancouver and froze baggage systems in Toronto.
But while stormy weather was behind much of the disruption, that’s not why the committee meeting was called, said Julie Vignola, a parliamentarian from the bloc representing Beauport-Limoilou.
“The problem is really about customer service,” he said.
Pam Damoff, a Liberal Rep. for Oakville North—Burlington, echoed that sentiment.
“You can’t control the weather, but what you can control are the plans you have to deal with it, as well as the way you communicate with your customers,” he said, adding that “bad weather is not unique to our Canada”. winters.”
Sunwing came under intense scrutiny from parliamentarians on the committee.
Last month, the holiday destination airline stranded hundreds in Mexico after canceling flights due to inclement weather ahead of Christmas, then canceled travel from Saskatchewan through early February due to “extenuating circumstances.”
Len Corrado, president of Sunwing, apologized once again for not having had the level that his passengers expect.
“While many of our clients enjoyed their vacations with minimal disruption, we did have some flaws in execution, which we are very sorry about,” Corrado said.
He listed three main reasons behind the company’s Christmas struggles: severe storms that affected operations across the country, unexpected staffing challenges, and airport infrastructure issues, such as the malfunctioning baggage carousel system at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. and a shortage of de-icing fluid in Vancouver. However, when asked later that day, Tamara Vrooman, the president and CEO of Vancouver International Airport, insisted that she had not run out of de-icing fluid at any time during the vacation.
Corrado also said Sunwing had applied to hire 63 foreign pilots on a temporary basis and planned to place them in Regina and Saskatoon. He said the company’s application was unexpectedly rejected in early December.
When contacted by Star, a Sunwing representative clarified that the request was denied on November 25. In all, the airline said it canceled 67 flights during “December operational problems.”
Following testimony from airline executives, Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra faced heated questioning from Conservative MPs who accused the minister of failing to intervene properly during the Sunwing fiasco.
But Alghabra responded.
“What do you want me to be held responsible for? The weather? Or Sunwing’s bad decisions? Alghabra said at one point. “I’ve been personally involved, including through Christmas Day, Christmas Day, on a regular basis, briefed and informed about what’s going on.”
He said his office continually reminded Sunwing of its obligations to customers, as set out in the Air Passenger Protection Regulations. “Sunwing violated those rights,” Alghabra said.
Alghabra was then asked by Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman of Thornhill why she did not order the Canadian Transport Agency (CTA) to conduct an investigation into recent air travel problems. Alghabra said the agency operates as an “independent quasi-judicial body” and must be free of political interference.
Taylor Bachrach, an NDP MP representing Skeena—Bulkley Valley, has called on the federal government to strengthen air passenger protections by requiring automatic compensation for travelers whose flights are delayed.
“Right now, people who have already endured the stress caused by delays and canceled flights have to jump through endless hoops to get compensation,” Bachrach said in a statement issued shortly before the committee meeting.
According to Bachrach, the CTA has a backlog of 33,000 complaints “from people who say they have been treated unfairly by airlines when it comes to compensation,” with an average wait time of two years.
Andrew Gibbons, WestJet’s vice president of external affairs, also wants changes to “address the most glaring gap in consumer protection in Canada today.”
Many groups can cause flight delays and cancellations, Gibbons said, “but only airlines have regulations that govern our activities.” He called on the committee to demand “equitable policies for any entity that provides a service that may result in a delay or cancellation,” including government entities, airport authorities and Nav Canada, the private company that manages Canada’s airspace.
“This is not about a blame game. It’s just about improving the system overall and making sure there’s full transparency so that the Canadian traveler understands what the root cause is” of flight delays and cancellations, Gibbons said.
After analyzing the problems it faced last month, WestJet said it planned to improve “guest communications when things go wrong” and the airline’s “overall baggage performance.”
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