Pre-Christmas storm fiasco galvanizes angry demands for better air passenger rights

MPs, consumer advocates want accountability from Sunwing and other airlines in Canada

Were you among the thousands of people from across Canada whose travel plans were overturned just before Christmas when airlines postponed or cancelled flights as a major storm wreaked havoc across Canada and the U.S.?

While Air Canada and other airlines got caught up in ensuing mess, if anything it was Canadian low-cost carrier Sunwing that got hit with the most flack.

Sunwing apologizes

Sunwing issued an apology to passengers it left stranded, while insisting, however, that “most of our customers enjoyed their holidays with minimal disruption.” Hundreds of passengers were affected by Sunwing flight disruptions, which began to pile up on Dec. 22 due to weather.

Some customers were stranded for days in tropical destinations amid a flurry of cancellations, winter storms and a breakdown within the airline’s digital communication systems.

Gabor Lukacs, who heads Air Passenger Rights, delivered a set of key recommendations to the House of Commons Transport Committee in December just a few days before the storm that threw many Canadians holiday travel plans into chaos.

In some widely-reported cases, Sunwing travellers were abandoned in Mexico for days with little or no communication and hotel lobby floors as beds. Well into the Christmas holiday period, many still didn’t know when they’d get on a flight back to Canada.

‘Incredibly sorry’

Sunwing Travel Group CEO Stephen Hunter and Sunwing Airlines president Len Corrado said they were “incredibly sorry for letting our customers down. We regret that we did not meet the level of service our customers expect from Sunwing.

“We had clear failures in execution, particularly in responding to weather-related delays and the aftermath of severe weather disruptions, which limited our ability to reposition aircraft and crew to other airports to help alleviate the backlog in flights.”

However, after Sunwing issued its apology, federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra tweeted that he had spoken with the company and “what happened is completely unacceptable,” he wrote.

New Air Passenger Protection rules

“Canadians expect airlines to keep them informed and manage disruptions. I will continue to work with Sunwing to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Alghabra’s office noted that the government recently strengthened its Air Passenger Protection Regulations. For its part, Sunwing said it is actively accepting eligible claims for compensation and would fully comply with Ottawa’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations. Sunwing said passengers who were affected by the delays can submit a claim through its website for compensation or a refund.

As of September 8th, the new regulations are in force, applying to flights that are cancelled, or where there is a lengthy delay, for reasons outside of an air carrier’s control, including major weather events or a pandemic.

Enforcing travellers’ rights

Last week in Ottawa, the chair of the House of Commons transport committee was calling on the airlines, as well as Via Rail whose operations were also thrown into chaos, to publicly explain what caused the travel nightmare.

While Sunwing has taken the brunt of recent criticism for cancelled flights, other airlines like Air Canada are also under fire. (File photo: Martin C. Barry, Newsfirst Multimedia)

Liberal member of Parliament Peter Schiefke, who chairs the House of Commons’ Transport, Infrastructure and Communities Committee, said he planned to convene a committee meeting and call for representatives from both companies to appear as witnesses. In a Tweet, he said Canadians deserve answers for “unacceptable delays and cancellations” over the holiday season.

MPs unite for passengers’ rights

At the same time, opposition MPs teamed up to call for an urgent meeting of the House of Commons’ Transport, Infrastructure and Communities Committee to discuss the treatment of passengers over the holiday season and to hear directly from the minister responsible.

“Hundreds of Canadians were stranded over the holidays due to extreme weather and poor customer care on the part of Canadian airlines and VIA Rail,” read a letter sent to Schiefke, signed by the committee’s five NDP and Conservative members. “These difficulties add to the troubling treatment of air passengers during the pandemic. Canadians deserve timely answers and accountability.”

In addition to discussing Canadian air and rail passengers’ experiences, the opposition parties wanted the committee chair to make plans to have Transport Minister Omar Alghabra appear and field questions.

Minister’s words not enough, says NDP

“It’s not enough for the Liberal Minister to tweet that the situation was unacceptable,” NDP transport critic and committee member Taylor Bachrach said in a statement.

“He’s the minister charged with overseeing Canada’s transportation system and has specific powers under legislation. If anyone can do something to protect passengers, it’s him. Canadians deserve to know what steps he took during the crisis and plans to take in the future to protect passengers.”

Gabor Lukacs, founder of the Halifax-based independent non-profit Air Passenger Rights group, took issue with Sunwing’s and the other airlines’ claims they were caught off-guard by the pre-Christmas weather disruption. “That’s the airlines’ story that there was a storm,” he said during an interview with Newsfirst Multimedia.

Storm no excuse, says APR’s Lukacs

While acknowledging that a severe weather disturbance did indeed sweep across virtually all of Canada and the U.S., he added that “a storm doesn’t require keeping travellers on the tarmac for twelve hours.

‘What we are seeing here is that as usual, the airlines are trying to blame somebody or something else,’ says head of consumer action group

“A storm does not prevent airlines from re-booking passengers as needed once the storm is over. What we are seeing here is that as usual, the airlines are trying to blame somebody or something else.”

In a report Air Passenger Rights submitted to the House of Commons Transport Committee on the Air Passenger Protection Regulations in December, ironically just a few days before the fateful storm struck, the group suggested that Canada’s passenger protection regime is unnecessarily complex, creates barriers to access to justice for passengers, and does not offer adequate protection to Canadians.

APR’S Key proposals

The Air Passenger Rights report urged harmonization with the European Union’s passenger protection regime, and provided five key recommendations for amending Canada’s air passenger protection laws:

  • Establish simple criteria for automatic standardized compensation of passengers for flight delay, flight cancellation, and denial of boarding.
  • Impose a clear burden of proof on airlines to present evidence about the circumstances of a travel disruption.
  • Establish common sense definitions for “flight cancellation” and “denial of boarding.”
  • Codify the right to a refund in the original form of payment of the itinerary if the passenger chooses not to travel due to a flight’s cancellation, delay, or denial of boarding by the airline.
  • Impose enforcement measures that include mandatory and minimum penalties, and higher maximum penalties.

“The status quo is untenable,” the 29-page document concluded. “The […] framework should be harmonized with the European Union’s passenger protection regime, which has been tested and proven to work for more than 16 years.”