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 DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Officials from Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing appeared at a House of Commons Transport, Infrastructure and Communities hearing on Thursday (Jan. 12) to testify about the disruptions that left Canadian travellers stranded and scrambling over the holidays.
Mother Nature (a snowstorm) was largely blamed for causing the chaos that disrupted hundreds of flights in the days leading up to, and after, Christmas Day.
Just how bad was it?
Appearing via video link, Kevin O'Connor, vice-president of system operations control at Air Canada, kicked the meeting off with some icy anecdotes.
In Vancouver, four-foot icicles formed on aircraft and bridges, making it almost impossible to move customers, he said. In Calgary, at one point, it got so cold, anti-icing fluid was unable to remove contamination.
Then, in Toronto, an airport baggage system started to freeze, he said.
“Because we are a network carrier that operates interconnected flights, severe weather can drastically impact our schedule and our movement of people and their baggage,” O'Connor told MPs at the emergency meeting, which was urgently announced Monday (Jan. 9).
“A delay in one part of the country has a knock-on effect across our network.”
MPs are probing the travel delays and experiences of passengers, who faced cancellations, rescheduled trips and, in some cases, were left stranded in sun destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean.
Officials from all three airlines admitted that the treatment of passengers over the holidays was unacceptable.
“There is no acceptable time for a Canadian customer to be sleeping on a sidewalk or hotel or airport floor or anywhere else,” said Andy Gibbons, WestJet's vice-president of government relations and regulatory affairs, who appeared at the meeting in person.
The storm that plowed into select cities resulted in “compounding” disruptions that hindered airlines’ ability to operate effectively, executives said.
“Our preparation efforts began early in the fall for this winter’s peak season, holding weekly meetings, tracking our preparedness towards peak. What we could not have foreseen in this preparation was the compounding scale of the weather events that we encountered in our system between Dec. 18 and Dec. 24,” said Scott Wilson, WestJet’s vice-president of flight operations.
“In my 22 years at WestJet, this was the most significant weather-induced disruption that I have experienced. Canadian air carriers have some of the most significant experience in cold weather and winter operations. Mother Nature, however, always has the ability to show us where our limits are.”
“We could have done better”
Also appearing virtually, Len Corrado, president of Sunwing Airlines, cited similar issues, admitting Sunwing “could have done better” as many of its customers were left in sun destinations – for days, in some cases – without knowing when they’d be flying home.
As it was well documented on social media, passengers described being shuffled between hotels – sometimes arriving at check-in counters to find out that there were no rooms booked for them.
Reports of Sunwing communicating inaccurate or incomplete information about return flights home have also circulated.
Some passengers simply say Sunwing (and other airlines) didn’t communicate anything about when they’d be flying home.
Corrado, alongside Sunwing CEO Stephen Hunter, publicly apologized to customers in a Jan. 5 statement.
“The bottom line is we know we could have done better. When even one customer is let down by their experience with our airline. I consider that a failure,” Corrado told committee members on Thursday. “We’d like to reassure committee members and Canadians that we are committed to providing the quality of service experience they’ve come to expect from us over the last 20 years.”
MPs on Thursday took a considerable amount of time to grill Sunwing over its performance over the holidays.
The airline cancelled 67 flights between Dec. 15 and 31 due to staffing shortages, executives said.
Corrado cited three main issues that led to “some failures in executions.”
Firstly, there was the storm that shuttered Vancouver International Airport on Dec. 20. This impacted Sunwing’s ability to position crew at other departure locations, Corrado said.
The second issue relates to staffing. Corrado said Sunwing, in anticipation of the busy winter season, began recruiting pilots last spring.
The carrier went from a low of 40 pilots during the pandemic to more than 475 in preparation for winter flying, he said.
Sunwing also applied to hire 63 foreign pilots on a temporary basis to fly aircraft out of Regina and Saskatoon airports, where Sunwing has operated seasonal routes since 2007.
“Unfortunately, our application was unexpectedly rejected,” Corrado said, saying that alternative arrangements were made to serve that market.
Ultimately, Sunwing, on Dec. 29, suspended all flights in Saskatchewan up to (and including) Feb. 3, 2023 as it moved to repatriate customers that were still stuck in destinations.
All of these challenges, thirdly, were compounded by “airport infrastructure issues,” Corrado said, such as a malfunctioning baggage belt system at Toronto Pearson airport.
A “catastrophic failure”
Sunwing’s last-minute pullout in Saskatchewan, for one, drew sharp questioning from Conservative MP Mark Strahl, who called the situation a “catastrophic failure.”
“The stories are heartbreaking of people cancelling weddings and losing trips of a lifetime,” Strahl said. “…I find it very troubling that you would have taken money from Canadians when you didn't have pilots lined up for the flights that you were selling.”
READ MORE: “An apology is not enough”: ACITA calls for industry change amid Sunwing cancellations
Corrado said Sunwing was assured by its legal team that its application to hire foreign pilots in Saskatchewan would be approved.
That application was denied Dec. 9, however, and despite actions to free up crew, rebuild pilot rotations, and bring in backup aircraft for that market, everything fell apart once the storm hit, Corrado told the committee.
“We failed to deliver at the level we had expected to,” he said.
Agents “did their job correctly,” MP says
The other side to this is how the Saskatchewan pullout has impacted travel advisors.
The tour operator, which promised customers full refunds for the cancelled flights, is not protecting commissions for the bookings it disrupted, putting agents at a major disadvantage during one of the busiest months of the year.
As PAX has previously reported, many travel advisors are starting 2023 with disappointed clients, mounting paperwork and thousands of dollars in recalled income due to Sunwing’s decision, which has also sparked criticism from advocacy groups like ACTA and ACITA.
This didn’t go unnoticed at Thursday’s hearing.
Bloc Québécois MP Julie Vignola told the committee how she’s heard that Sunwing isn’t paying commission to travel advisors impacted by the suspensions – “even though they did their job correctly.”
“Is this a policy that is common in your company? For you to not pay the companies and agencies that are selling your trips?” Vignola asked.
Andrew Dawson, president of tour operations for Sunwing, said it’s a “common practice” within the industry to only pay commission on completed trips.
READ MORE: “Enough is enough”: Agents blast Sunwing for suspending SK flights, recalling commissions
Dawson, appearing virtually, said he sympathized with the trade, noting that Sunwing has incentives to reward agents and is looking at ways to make them whole so agents will work with the tour operator again.
MP Vignola noted that most travel advisors are women and that travel is their only source of income.
“It’s quite disappointing that they do not receive the compensation that they deserve for their work when they’ve done their work,” she said.
7,000 complaints at Sunwing
The holiday delays have led to thousands of Canadians seeking compensation under the federal government’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR).
Dawson told the committee that Sunwing has received 7,000 complaints for various issues, including extra expenses incurred and refunds.
Andrew Gibbons at WestJet called for reform of the APPR, saying airlines shouldn’t be the only ones held responsible for delays and cancellations.
“We also believe that the government must address the most glaring gap in consumer protection in Canada today, and this is the fact that your delay or cancellation can be caused by many groups, yet only airlines have regulations governing our activities,” Gibbons explained.
He said the committee should demand equal policies for any entity that provides a service that can result in a delay or cancellation.
“This includes government entities, airport authorities, NAV Canada and others,” Gibbons said. “Strengthening overall accountability across our entire aviation system will improve service for all, bring down complaints and provide the transparency our guests and all travellers deserve.”
David Rheault, vice-president of government and community relations at Air Canada, also called for “shared accountability.”
He said Ottawa must invest and modernize Canada’s aerospace infrastructure with digitization and facility upgrades.
“At present, hundreds of millions of dollars are taken from passengers and the industry in taxes, fees and airport rent, and put into general revenue. This money should be reinvested into the air transportation infrastructure,” he said.
Thursday’s meeting also heard from Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, who, too, has faced criticism for his handling of the holiday travel fiasco.
Over the holidays, Minister Alghabra called the matter "unacceptable,” and last weekend, he said he was looking at ways to beef up passenger protection regulations.
"Currently, it feels to many passengers that the burden is on them," Alghabra told CBC last weekend. "We want to make sure we put rules in place to ensure that the burden is on the airline."
Alghabra said Thursday that the Liberals are “not hiding” from the mess that unfolded over the holidays.
“We are going to assume our responsibilities and the industry must assume theirs,” Alghabra said.
The Minister said the winter storms did not cause failures at customs and airport security screening, or long security line-ups such as the ones passengers endured during the spring and summer months last year.
He said the biggest issue during the holidays was that passengers were left without updates or information about when their flight was delayed or cancelled.
Gibbons said the holidays showed WestJet that it must communicate better with its customers.
“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 told committee members.
During his testimony, Alghabra reiterated his plan to strengthen passenger protections with new legislation, which could arrive as soon as this spring.
Gibbons, however, said that he doesn’t believe the priority right now should be additional penalties “on the only group that has any accountability and regulations that govern it.”
“This is not about blame game. It is simply about improving the system overall,'' he said.
And making sure there's “full transparency” so that Canadian travellers understand the root cause of their delay or cancellation.
During the hearing, Bachrach asked Alghabra why he hasn't directed the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) — which is supposed to enforce air passenger protections — to ramp up enforcement through fines.
The CTA, for instance, can fine airlines up to $25,000 if they don't comply with air passenger protection regulations.
"Why does this government treat the airlines with kid gloves?" Bachrach asked.
Alghabra said the CTA is an arms-length agency responsible for upholding the rules, adding that he is open to increasing fines.
The CTA is reportedly dealing with a backlog of more than 30,000 complaints.
11 hours on the tarmac
Air Canada, too, was in the hot seat – specifically over an incident whereby passengers were stuck on the tarmac at Vancouver airport for more than 11 hours.
NDP MP Taylor Bachrach pressed the airline to explain how this happened, and Air Canada's Kevin O'Connor summed it up as a safety issue.
“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.''
Vancouver Airport Authority President Tamara Vrooman later said the airport did not receive a request from Air Canada to bring food or water to passengers on board that particular flight and said the airline's request was to gain gate access.
MPs have also agreed to hear from VIA Rail and Canadian National (CN) Railway – Via Rail, in particular, experienced a train derailment that resulted in some passengers being stuck for as long as 18 hours on trains.
Those companies will testify at a separate hearing.
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