Air Canada, WestJet, Sunwing and Via Rail have been invited to testify about the disruptions that overwhelmed Canada’s busy travel season last month.
MPs on Monday (Jan. 9) voted to launch a study into the treatment of air and rail passengers following the winter storms that caused nationwide flight delays and cancellations in the days leading up to, and after, Christmas Day.
The House of Commons committee that oversees transportation issues unanimously agreed to launch a study before the House returns on Jan. 30.
The committee will begin hearings this Thursday (Jan. 12) and will hear from passenger advocates and impacted travellers.
Also called to testify is Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, who is expected to field questions about what happened over Christmas what accountability there will be.
The holiday blues
After winter storms in Vancouver, Toronto and elsewhere crippled flight schedules during the holiday rush period, several incidents led to travellers unable to get to their destinations as operational failures unfolded.
Via Rail, for one, experienced a train derailment that resulted in some passengers being stuck for as long as 18 hours on trains, while hundreds of Sunwing passengers were reportedly left stranded in Mexico, and other sun destinations, after the tour operator cancelled their flights home.
Many customers who were impacted by the chaos took to social media to express their rage, blasting airlines for the lack of communication they received and for misplacing luggage.
While the upcoming hearings will focus on the December 2022 and January 2023 period, the House committee says it will be including its findings into a broader ongoing study on air passenger rights, reports say.
The review comes as MPs share their disappointment over what transpired over the holidays.
"Many of our constituents had their holiday plans disrupted or ruined, and spent long periods of time in airport or hotel lobbies, or in train cabins waiting for updates that were too slow in coming," said committee chair and Liberal MP Peter Schiefke at Monday's meeting.
"Thousands of individuals and families had particularly miserable experiences that were compounded by futile attempts at trying to get clear explanations or trying to secure compensation for the time and money that they spent."
The committee’s aim, it appears, is to help Canadians understand what happened with travel during the holidays, what their rights are as passengers, and to hold companies accountable in order to ensure the system doesn’t fail again.
Apologies & possible lawsuit
Sunwing, last week, apologized for impacting travel during the holidays, citing "clear failures in execution, particularly in responding to weather-related delays and the aftermath of severe weather disruptions."
A company statement, signed by Stephen Hunter, CEO of Sunwing Travel Group and Len Corrado, president of Sunwing Airlines, noted that Sunwing is reducing some capacity this month to ensure that it can execute higher standards of service.
Hunter and Corrado also recognized Sunwing’s obligations under Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations, promising full compliance with the rules.
The tour operator is also facing sharp criticism from Canadian travel advisors – particularly those in Saskatchewan, who are starting the New Year with thousands in recalled commissions after Sunwing suspended flights at Saskatoon and Regina airports until (and including) Feb. 3, 2022.
In a statement to PAX last week, the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) blasted this decision, which has been a nightmare for Saskatchewan agents as big bookings, which they spent months preparing, disappear overnight.
“To say ACITA is disappointed with these most recent cancellations is an understatement. Independent advisors have been working so hard to rebound after two long years of cancellations, and to now have to cancel and process refunds yet again, all while working without compensation, is unacceptable,” the grassroots advocacy group said.
“These suppliers have been using us as their free labour workforce for too long. An apology is not enough.”
In a separate matter, Sunwing is now facing a possible class-action lawsuit involving consumers in the wake of the holiday cancellations.
The airport and airline disruptions harken back to last spring and summer when a similar wave of delays, cancellations and lost luggage occurred.
After Minister Alghabra, last November, met with the aviation sector at a summit, where solutions for improving the passenger experience were discussed, hopes were high for a seamless holiday season.
But it was everything but that.
Yesterday, Minister Alghabra attributed the holiday travel woes to "extreme weather events" unlike last summer's "crush of travellers."
The Transport Minister, speaking to CBC Radio over the weekend, said the government is looking at strengthening its air passenger protections so complaints against airlines are settled before they reach the heavily-backlogged CTA.
Alghabra implied that he would like to see more responsibility placed on airlines to compensate passengers before complaints are filed.
"Currently, it feels to many passengers that the burden is on them," Alghabra told CBC. "We want to make sure we put rules in place to ensure that the burden is on the airline."