Monday,  March 20, 2023  11:54 pm

NDP calls for more airline competition as probe into holiday travel crisis intensifies

NDP calls for more airline competition as probe into holiday travel crisis intensifies
New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh. (File photo/CPAC)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

The federal Conservatives and NDP are demanding answers from travel companies on what caused the operational breakdowns that stranded hundreds of Canadians in destinations over the holidays.

Tory and New Democrat members of the House of Commons transport committee sent a letter to the committee's chair on Wednesday (Jan. 4), requesting a meeting to address the topic ASAP, the Canadian Press reported.

The push comes after a winter storm crippled air travel across the country in the days leading up to and after Christmas, disrupting the itineraries of thousands who were flying in Canada and elsewhere.

Travellers were reportedly stuck on unmoving planes for hours, while others were left stranded at airports at home and in destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean after their flight was cancelled or delayed.

Many passengers who were impacted by the chaos took to social media to express their displeasure, blasting airlines over the lack of communication they received and for misplacing luggage.

Travellers wait in a security line at Toronto Pearson airport. (File photo/Pax Global Media)

Some in destinations struggled to find a flight home and were forced to pay out-of-pocket expenses.

At a press conference Wednesday, New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh said the situation is an example of why there should be more airline competition in Canada.

Singh said the lack of choice for passengers is making air travel less affordable and he called on Transport Minister Omar Alghabra to intervene.

READ MORE: “Enough is enough”: Agents blast Sunwing for suspending SK flights, recalling commissions

“We need to make sure people have access to being able to get around the country, and that it is affordable,” Singh said, as reported by the Canadian Press. “And right now, for many people, it is not at all. It's something we need to look at and find solutions for.”

One particular incident that’s under the microscope is Sunwing leaving customers behind in sun destinations during the aftermath of the storm.

As the tour operator scrambled to activate recovery flights, (which it says are now complete), it then announced that it would be suspending flights out of Saskatchewan until early February.

Sunwing has suspended flights out of Saskatchewan until early February. (Sunwing/file photo)

That decision, which cancelled service out of Regina and Saskatoon airports up to (and including) Feb. 3, is now generating sharp criticism from travel advisors in the province who were forced to cancel dozens of family and group bookings and return thousands of dollars in hard-earned commission.

The chair of the House of Commons transport committee on Tuesday (Jan. 3) called for Sunwing (and Via Rail, which grappled with travel issues of its own during the holidays) to explain what caused the breakdown that left travellers without service for hours – even days in some cases.

Liberal MP Peter Schiefke said Canadians deserve answers for the “unacceptable delays and cancellations" that plagued holiday travel.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, that same day, tweeted that “it will be an important discussion.”

“Canadians deserve answers!” he wrote.

Broken promises?

Singh also said the NDP wants the CEOs of Sunwing and Air Canada to appear at a future transport committee meeting and answer questions, according to the Canadian Press.

In a statement Wednesday, NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach criticized Minister Alghabra’s seemingly lackluster response to the issue.

“It's not enough for the Liberal minister to tweet that the situation was unacceptable,” Bachrach wrote in a letter that was signed jointly with other opposition MPs. 

Left, travellers at Toronto Pearson (Twitter/@MatthewGreenNDP); Transport Minister Omar Alghabra (right). (File photo)

“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.”

Conservative MP Mark Strahl, a member of the transport committee, said Tuesday his party wants Minister Alghabra to answer for what happened during the holiday rush.

“He broke his promise to fix the system and Canadians paid the price for it,” he wrote in a tweet.

In a statement to PAX on Dec. 30, Transport Canada noted how frustrating flight delays and cancellations are for travellers.

“Transport Canada will continue to work with all air sector partners to do everything in its power to ensure that Canadians can travel safely and securely during the holiday season,” wrote Allison St-Jean, a spokesperson for the federal transport minister’s office.

“We also recognize all the work that travel advisors do to help their consumers.”

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