Sunwing has received 7,000 complaints about holiday travel disruptions

Sunwing has received 7,000 complaints about holiday travel disruptions

Sunwing Airlines has received 7,000 complaints so far from customers unhappy with the airline's performance during a turbulent holiday travel season that saw many customers stranded abroad.

Sunwing executives told MPs on the House of Commons standing committee on transport, infrastructure and communities Thursday that the airline cancelled 67 flights between December 15 and 31, in part because of staff shortages. Sunwing president Len Corrado said the airline struggled after the federal government declined its request to hire 63 pilots as temporary foreign workers.

Members of Parliament are questioning airline executives and airport authorities on Thursday about the travel chaos that erupted during the holidays.

Hundreds of air passengers were stranded over the holiday season after airlines cancelled or delayed flights, largely due to a major storm that hit much of Canada around Christmas.

Even though the House of Commons isn't sitting right now, MPs on the transport committee met Monday and unanimously supported calling witnesses to discuss the travel debacle.

Executives from WestJet and Air Canada also testified.

Sunwing, a smaller airline that offers flights to warm southern destinations, faced the brunt of MPs' questions Thursday.

WATCH | Sunwing says it received 7,000 complaints during chaotic holiday travel season

Sunwing president Len Corrado began his testimony with an apology.

"We failed to deliver to the level that we had expected, and that Canadians had expected from us over this holiday season," he said in his opening statement before the committee.

His colleague Andrew Dawson, the president of tour operations at Sunwing Travel Group, said the airline has received approximately 7,000 complaints so far. Many of them are demanding partial compensation or full refunds for their travel troubles over the holidays.

Conservative tansport critic Mark Strahl wanted to know why Sunwing had sold flights departing from Saskatchewan when it didn't have pilots to fly the planes.

"I find it very troubling that you would have booked travel, taken money from Canadians, when you didn't have pilots lined up for the flights that you were selling," Strahl said.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Carrado answered that Sunwing had applied to hire 63 pilots as temporary foreign workers to meet the demand, and that the airline's legal team informed Sunwing executives the application would be successful.

But on December 9, 2022, Carrado said, the airline got word that the application had been rejected. Carrado added that Sunwing attempted to shift resources and alter its schedule to make up for the shortfall, but that plan wasn't entirely successful.

"We failed to deliver to the level we had expected to," Carrado said.

All airline executives appearing before the committee pointed to similar difficulties with holiday flights, including the winter storm, staffing shortages and equipment and infrastructure that failed due to freezing temperatures.

"In my 22 years at WestJet, this was the most significant weather-induced disruption that I have experienced," Scott Wilson, WestJet's vice-president of flight operations, told committee members.

"Mother Nature always has the ability to show us where our limits are."

WestJet executives said the airline had to cancel just over 1,600 flights between Dec. 16 and Jan. 8.

David Rheault, Air Canada's vice-president of government and community relations, called on the government to invest more of the taxes and fees it collects from airlines into industry infrastructure so that it can cope more effectively with weather disruptions.

"This money should be reinvested into the air transport infrastructure," Rheault told the committee. "We need to move forward with digitization, facility upgrades and other improvements."

Strahl also asked the airline executives to tell MPs when Transport Minister Omar Alghabra contacted them about holiday travel issues.

Corrado said he thinks Sunwing first heard from the minister on Dec. 29. WestJet external affairs vice-president Andrew Gibbons said the company's CEO texted Alghabra "very early on" in the holiday season — around Dec. 20 or 21 — to let the minister know about anticipated travel issues. Gibbons said later the company was in contact with Transport Canada and Alghabra's office daily.

Rheault did not indicate when Air Canada and Alghabra began talking about travel issues but said they communicated daily during the holiday travel disruptions.

Ahead of his own committee appearance on Thursday afternoon, Alghabra told reporters that while he may not have contacted airlines personally, representatives from his office reached out and were briefing him on the situation.

"There was no confusion about where the minister's and the government of Canada's expectations were," he said.

Strahl asked Alghabra why he didn't contact the airlines personally.

"Accountability starts at the top and I would argue you're passing the buck," Strahl told the minister.

WATCH | Alghabra says his office spoke to airlines daily during holiday travel chaos

The Sunwing and WestJet executives said they need to improve on customer communications and are looking at making changes.

Representatives of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), Aéroports de Montreal and the Vancouver Airport Authority also testified.

Deborah Flint, GTAA president and CEO, also blamed weather and labour issues for the holiday disruptions.

"This holiday, what happened, it was really a perfect storm of significant, epic bad weather, and in an industry that is healing from the COVID extended shutdown," Flint said.

Flint added that the industry is dealing with workforce attrition and said it needs to find a way to appeal to more prospective workers.

"Labour today is not what it was," she said.

Tamara Vrooman, president and CEO of the Vancouver Airport Authority, also pointed to the winter storm but said the airport could have done a better job of addressing delays.

"I also believe passengers spent an unacceptable amount of time on YVR's tarmac," she said.

Passengers in Vancouver reported being left waiting on the tarmac for up to 12 hours with no access to food or water.

When asked, Vrooman said the airport didn't offer food and water to be taken to planes stuck waiting for a gate to open, but added that airlines didn't request any assistance on that front.

"We certainly were constantly asking what support they needed, and airlines were saying uncategorically they needed access to the gates. And so that was our priority," she said.

In a news conference before the committee meeting Thursday morning, NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach called on Alghabra to bring forward legislation that would make air passenger protection laws closer to those in the European Union.

"Doing so is going to close loopholes currently being exploited by the airlines. It's going to result in a less administratively burdensome system, one that costs less for taxpayers. It's going to make paying compensation the norm, not the exception. And it's finally going to put the rights of Canadian air passengers over the profits of the big airlines," Bachrach said.

WATCH Canadians travellers deserve better, NDP transport critic says

Over the holidays, Alghabra repeatedly called the travel situation "unacceptable." Last week, he said he was looking at air passenger protection regulations.

"Last summer and this winter, we've seen certain examples where passengers felt they were not communicated with, their rights were not upheld," he told CBC News. "So we need to strengthen the rules."

Alghabra repeated that statement Thursday afternoon during his opening address to the committee and said he hopes to reveal more details in the coming months. He also indicated that he's open to looking at other jurisdictions, including the EU, for ways to improve air passenger protections.

During the committee hearing, Bachrach asked Alghabra why he hasn't directed the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) — which is responsible for enforcing air passenger protections — to step up enforcement through monetary fines.

WATCH | Trudeau says feds will strengthen and 'expand' rights of airline passengers

The CTA has the ability to fine airlines up to $25,000 if they don't comply with air passenger protection regulations. The agency says it has levied only 25 fines since the regulations came into force in 2019.

"Why does this government treat the airlines with kid gloves?" Bachrach asked.

Alghabra maintained that the CTA is a an arms-length agency responsible for upholding the rules. The minister later added that he is opening to increasing the fines the agency can impose on airlines.

The CTA is grappling with a backlog of more than 30,000 passenger complaints. Officials from the agency also appeared before the committee Thursday afternoon and said they expect even more complaints related to holiday travel.

Jeff Morrison, president of the National Airlines Council of Canada, told CBC News Network's Power & Politics that other entities, such as airports and navigation service providers, need to be held accountable when disruptions happen.

"The only way we can create a better system overall that minimizes disruptions is if we put in greater accountability, greater service standards for each entity within the air travel ecosystem," Morrison told host Catherine Cullen. "Right now, it's just airlines that are subject to any sort of accountability."

WATCH | Airlines association blames weather for holiday travel chaos

The WestJet and Air Canada representatives who appeared at Thursday's committee echoed Morrison's call for shared accountability.

But Alghabra pointed out that compensation rules only apply to airlines when a flight disruption is within their control.

In cases where a disruption is outside an airline's control, they are required to rebook passengers within 48 hours. If they cannot be rebooked within that timeframe, the airline is then required to offer a refund for the price of the ticket.

Alghabra did say he is open to strengthening governance rules for entities like airports and navigation service providers.

MPs also agreed to hear from VIA Rail and Canadian National (CN) Railway, but they didn't appear Thursday.

Hundreds of rail passengers ended up trapped on Via Rail trains running between Windsor, Ont., and Quebec City following the closure of a stretch of track on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.