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Ivison: Transport Minister Omar Alghabra defends Canada’s air industry plan in wake of flight chaos

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This week, John Ivison was joined by transport minister Omar Alghabra just before he appeared before an emergency transport committee hearing into air and rail disruptions at Christmas. In his testimony, Sunwing Airlines CEO, Len Corrado, said he did not speak to Alghabra until January 5, long after the Christmas flight chaos that left thousands of Sunwing customers stranded overseas had been resolved. But the minister says he was co-ordinating the government’s response. “I didn’t have personal communication with the CEO until the issue slowed down because I felt it was unnecessary to duplicate resources…(But) I was personally involved in what happened from day one.”

Alghabra said that while there were systemic issues at play at Christmas, it was a very different situation to last summer when the travel sector re-emerged from the massive shutdown caused by COVID – a re-start that saw the entire system falter. “This time, there was extreme weather overlaying one of the busiest times of the year and bad decisions made by a few organizations that stranded customers.” The minister said he plans to strengthen passenger protection rules and ensure the regulator, the Canadian Transportation Agency, has the resources it needs to enforce the law. But he said laying the blame on enforcement is “debatable.”

“The rules were there and the airlines broke rules…If the debate is that, if the fines were thousands of dollars higher, would that have prevented this, it’s a healthy discussion,” he said. While large airports have seen their passenger numbers recover to pre-pandemic levels, smaller airports have struggled to recoup passengers and flight numbers. Alghabra says he thinks competition in the domestic industry is promising, pointing to new flights by Porter Airlines, Flair and Jetliner.

But some regional airports have seen flights by major airlines cancelled – Air Canada has stopped flying directly between Calgary and Regine, for example. “I concede airlines have not restored services they had before the pandemic and some regional communities have not seen the return of service they were accustomed to. I have raised this with Air Canada,” he said.

But he said the government needs to “strike a fine line” between protecting public policy objectives and allowing the marketplace to operate efficiently.