Lost luggage still clogs some Canadian airports after chaotic holiday travel week

Passengers search for their luggage at Vancouver International Airport on Thursday. Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is calling for tougher rules for airlines, saying the airport chaos over the holidays was not acceptable.   (Justine Boulin/CBC - image credit)
Passengers search for their luggage at Vancouver International Airport on Thursday. Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is calling for tougher rules for airlines, saying the airport chaos over the holidays was not acceptable. (Justine Boulin/CBC - image credit)

Eight days after Toronto aviation engineer Parham Zabeti was supposed to fly to a family reunion, he is still in Toronto and still looking for the bag he checked.

The 40-year-old paid $517 for an Air Canada ticket to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he planned to visit his brother and then drive to Florida to join his mother other relatives. He arrived at Pearson International Airport on Dec. 22 with plenty of time to spare before his flight. The plane took off after a bit of a delay, but was turned back midair due to a blizzard.

The seemingly straightforward journey was transformed into a 10-hour ordeal that ended back in Toronto with Zabeti and other passengers waiting to retrieve their luggage after the flight landed around midnight.

His luggage never appeared. No explanations were offered. His trip was effectively over.

Zabeti's missing suitcase is full of gifts for family members who were travelling from Iran and Vancouver to the reunion in Florida. It is one of thousands of bags belonging to other frustrated travellers.

Suitcases, duffel bags and carseats are lined up in luggage holiding areas at Canadian airports after weather and staffing issues caused hundreds of flights to be delayed or cancelled, leaving some passengers stranded in airports or stuck on unmoving planes for hours during the Christmas holidays.

Justine Boulin/CBC
Justine Boulin/CBC

Sunwing Airlines left many stranded in popular sun destinations. Passengers say incomplete or inaccurate information about the status of their flights made things worse.

On Friday, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said the airport chaos over the holiday period was unacceptable. He noted that with 30,000 complaints and an 18-month backlog in the Canadian Transportation Agency complaint process, there's not much recompense when things go wrong in air travel in Canada.

Poilievre and many passengers are calling for tougher rules and a federal agency with teeth that can hold airlines to account.

"[Trudeau] is blaming the snow right now, but there was no snow in the summer and there was chaos at our airports in the summertime," said Poilievre.

A statement released Friday by the office of Transport Minister Omar Alghabra called out Sunwing Airlines and assured Canadians the government is working to fix the "frustrating" situation.

"The Sunwing Airlines situation is completely unacceptable ... We expect all airlines to communicate with passengers and keep them informed of delays or cancellations," the statement said.

Airports are now dealing with throngs of people returning to try to find luggage days after their cancelled flights. Some are driving for hours, while others, like Zabeti, don't have a vehicle or straightforward way to return to the airport to search for lost bags.

Air Canada said in a statement it is working hard to reunite people with their bags and is making "good progress."

Alyssa Smith, a Vancouver Airport Authority spokesperson, on Thursday showed CBC temporary walls that have been erected to safely store about 2,500 unclaimed bags at Vancouver International Airport.

She said travellers with missing bags need to file a lost luggage claim with the airline. They can also show up at the airport with their luggage tags and airline ticket, and staff will escort them into the now protected areas to search for their bags.

Joel Law/CBC News
Joel Law/CBC News

"It's an unfortunate situation to be in certainly for travellers, especially this time of year. We are doing everything we can to sort and organize and work to get people reunited with their bags," said Smith.

The backlog of bags at many Canadian airports is the knock-on effect of weather issues that started Dec. 20.

Both the Montreal and Toronto airports said baggage is the airlines' authority and refused further comment.

"Airlines are responsible for their flight schedules, including delays and cancellations, as well as baggage handling upon arrival of the aircrafts. They have been working actively on baggage delivery," said Eric Forest, a spokesperson for Aéroports de Montréal.

Airlines can be held liable for baggage that is lost or damaged up to approximately $2,300, according to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA). Claims must be submitted within 21 days for delayed baggage, and within seven days for damaged luggage.

For many passengers, however, there is no compensation for a ruined holiday.

Zabeti still has no idea where his lost bag might be or if he'll see it again. The only communication he's had from Air Canada was a form email and a text message about a $200 voucher he can put toward another flight.

He ended up joining his family via video chat at the Florida gathering, and was brought to tears by tributes from his niece and nephew — and the thought that he'd missed a visit with his aging mother, who lives in Vancouver.

Aram Zabeti
Aram Zabeti

"My mom is like 80 something years old … you never know when is the next time you're going to see her," he said.

"This is ridiculous and painful ... Why would any passenger trust Air Canada at this point?"

Bags lost in 'abyss'

At Pearson International Airport, the halls have been cleared of lost luggage, but the problem persists. Airlines have only moved the bags offsite for storage until they're reunited with their owners.

Paul Martin was near the airport Thursday, trying to retrieve bags from Sunwing Airlines for his sister-in-law, who made it to Cancun on a Dec. 24 flight, but whose luggage did not.

"The bag is somewhere in the abyss," he said.

"The Americans had a similar problem — but they are recovering quicker. Government, you need to look at it, and make some changes."

In an email to CBC Sunwing Airlines explained the myriad challenges that affected customers at Toronto's airport from Dec. 24 to 27.

"Best efforts are being made to reunite customers with baggage that may have been left at Toronto Pearson due to recent mechanical issues with the baggage belts in Terminal 3, an issue that impacted all carriers operating out of the terminal."

Sunwing told customers whose bags did not arrive with them on holiday to await instructions on how to retrieve their luggage after they return.