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Transport minister, airlines to appear at committee today to explain holiday travel chaos

(C) Elizabeth Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images Travellers line up to check their Sunwing airline flights at terminal 2 of Cancun international airport in Cancun, Quintana Roo state, Mexico, on December 27, 2022.

MPs are set to grill Canada’s minister of transport, airlines and airport authorities over the travel chaos that erupted during the holidays. Hundreds of air passengers were stranded over the holiday season after airlines cancelled or delayed flights due to a major storm that hit much of Canada around Christmas. Even though the House of Commons isn’t currently sitting, MPs on the transport committee met Monday and unanimously supported calling witnesses to discuss the travel debacle.

Executives from Sunwing Airlines, Air Canada and WestJet will be the first to appear when the meeting kicks off at 10:30 a.m. ET. They will be followed by representatives of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, Aeroports de Montreal and the Vancouver Airport Authority.

Conservative transport critic Mark Strahl told CBC’s News Network on Wednesday that the committee wants to get answers for Canadian travellers. “The system failed to deal with any adversity so we want accountability,” he told host Hannah Thibedeau. Strahl said that accountability starts at the top with Transport Minister Omar Alghabra.

Alghabra will make his own appearance before the committee Thursday afternoon. Today’s committee hearing is set to run until 4:30 p.m. ET.

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.” 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.” Air travellers began experiencing an unusual number of flight disruptions back in the spring, when demand for air travel began to return to pre-pandemic levels. Many passengers have accused airlines of skirting compensation rules that have been in place since 2019.

Those rules require an airline to compensate passengers when a flight is delayed or cancelled for a reason that is within the airline’s control. In cases of weather delays, airlines are required to keep passengers informed and rebook them. If they can’t be rebooked within 48 hours, the airline is required to offer a refund.

But the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), which is responsible for enforcing those compensation rules, is grappling with a backlog of more than 30,000 passenger complaints. Officials from the CTA are also scheduled to appear before the committee Thursday afternoon. MPs also agreed to hear from VIA Rail and Canadian National (CN) Railway, but they will not be appearing 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.