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Transport minister says he’s not responsible for weather or Sunwing’s ‘bad decisions’

(C) Provided by National Post Sunwing passengers line up for check-in at Cancun International Airport on Dec.

27, 2022, after many flights to Canada had been cancelled due to severe winter weather.Replay Video
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OTTAWA — Transport Minister Omar Alghabra defended his choice not to personally contact airlines and airports while they grappled with holiday travel upheaval that left thousands of Canadians stranded and airports a maze of unclaimed luggage and frustrated travellers. Alghabra told a Parliamentary committee on Thursday that he was briefed daily on the backlogs at airports over Christmas. Committee member Conservative MP Mark Strahl pointed to testimony earlier in the day from airport officials, who said they never heard from Alghabra, and from executives of Sunwing Airlines, who said they didn’t talk to Alghabra until Jan.

5, “more than two weeks after the catastrophic failure of that airline, and people sleeping in hotel lobbies in a foreign country.” Strahl accused the minister of waiting until the crisis had passed before he “even did the basic thing to pick up the phone.” Alghabra responded his office was in contact with airlines and airports on a daily basis, and he was “involved and briefed” on a daily basis. “The airlines or airports were not confused about my instructions or my feeling about what my happening, about my expectations,” he said.

“I’ve been extremely involved and engaged,” he said. The House of Commons transport committee is looking into the travel problems Canadians experienced over the holidays, when thousands travelling both by air and by train faced cancellations and delays. Consumer advocates have blamed weak enforcement of the rules by the federal government for contributing to travel problems.

Later in the day-long hearing, Conservative MP Luc Berthold told Alghabra he could have “demonstrated leadership” by intervening personally. “What do you want me to be responsible for? The weather, or Sunwing’s bad decisions?” Alghabra responded. “I’ve been personally involved even during Christmas Day, Boxing Day, on a regular basis.”

Alghabra also told MPs he is working to strengthen passenger rights, including by putting more responsibility on airlines to compensate passengers for issues like delays and cancellations. “Currently, passengers are told by airlines too often that they’re not entitled to compensation when they really are,” he said. That’s a measure called for by customer advocates who have said the government should strengthen the Air Passenger Protection Regulations, including by ensuring customers are compensated automatically instead of having to apply.

The president of Sunwing Airlines, which left hundreds of Canadians stranded in Mexico and cancelled all flights to Saskatchewan over Christmas, apologized Thursday and acknowledged the airlines failed. “The bottom line is, we know we could have done better, said Len Corrado. Corrado testified before the committee earlier in the day.

The MPs also heard from several airline executives but focused much of their ire on Sunwing.

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The company has now received 7,000 complaints from customers over the holiday travel season, executives testified. Corrado apologized for having “failed to deliver to the level that we had expected, and that Canadians had expected from us over this holiday season.” He blamed the issues on massive winter storms across the country, which “included the virtual shutdown of Vancouver’s airport, and caused major delays in Ontario and Quebec,” airport infrastructure issues, and the denial of an application to bring in 63 foreign pilots, who would have been based in Regina and Saskatoon.

Corrado promised MPs the company would “fully comply” with its obligations under the regulations that outline obligations for compensating customers for delays and cancellations. Strahl asked Sunwing why the airline kept booking flights when it didn’t have the pilots. “How did you possibly book travel for Canadians when you did not have crews or planes lined up to service them?

This is a catastrophic failure, and the stories are heartbreaking, of people cancelling weddings, losing trips of a lifetime, just abruptly pulling out of an entire province,” he said. Corrado answered the company “had a certain amount of assurances from our legal team” that its application to bring in foreign pilots would be successful. Once it learned that wasn’t the case, it rebuilt its schedule but then hit further problems because of the storms.

NDP MP Taylor Bachrach read out a letter from the mother of a passenger who was stuck in Mexico with no reliable communication from Sunwing and who could not afford to book a different return flight, and who was offered £150 in compensation. Corrado said that story was “unacceptable.” Bachrach also questioned Air Canada executives about the case of passengers on one plane who were stuck on the tarmac for 11 hours, despite regulations that set a time limit of just under four hours.

Kevin O’Connor, vice-president of system operations control at Air Canada, responded that there was no way to safely take the passengers back to a gate. “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,” he said.

“Nobody wanted us to have customers on board for 11 hours.”

Bacharach responded he was “somewhat disturbed to hear that there was no plan to safely get those passengers off the plane.”