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‘Not hiding’: Transport minister says Ottawa will be accountable on travel mess

MPs are probing what went wrong in the days before and after Christmas
Luggage bags are amassed in the bag claim area at Toronto Pearson International Airport, as a major winter storm disrupts flights in and out of the airport, in Toronto, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022. From long hours waiting on hold to sleepless nights on airport floors and desperate scrambles to rebook flights and find missing bags, it was a holiday travel season that no one had on their wish list — but that thousands of people got. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Thursday the Liberal government is “not hiding” from the travel debacle that unfolded over the holidays.

The minister is the latest witness to appear during marathon hearings Thursday in front of the House of Commons transport committee.

Members of Parliament are probing what went wrong in the days before and after Christmas, when thousands of Canadians saw their flights cancelled or delayed and hundreds found themselves stranded abroad.

Alghabra said the winter storm that swept across most of the country and triggered the widespread disruptions did not lead to failures on the part of government agencies in charge of customs and airport security screening, or long security line-ups such as those seen at Canada’s largest airport last summer.

But he vowed that the federal Liberals would hold themselves accountable on the file.

“I want to tell you that our government is not hiding,” Alghabra said.

“We are going to assume our responsibilities and the industry must assume theirs.”

He said the biggest issue over the holidays was that passengers felt left in the dark when airlines delayed or cancelled their trips.

Earlier in the day, executives from Sunwing Airlines, WestJet and Air Canada offered a mix of explanation and apology for what transpired over the holidays, as they laid the blame for the chaos on Mother Nature.

Committee members directed many of their queries at Sunwing, the vacation airline that left hundreds of Canadians stranded in Mexico when their flights home were cancelled.

Airline president Len Corrado opened his remarks to the committee 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.

Corrado added that winter storms caused massive delays at airports in Quebec and Ontario and shut down Vancouver’s airport almost completely.

Sunwing drew further ire for announcing on Dec. 29 it was cancelling all flights out of Saskatchewan until early February.

Corrado said Thursday that that was because the airline’s application to bring 63 foreign temporary pilots on board for the winter was denied, leaving it unable to staff all its flights.

The company first learned its application had failed around Dec. 9 and tried to find contingencies before announcing the cancellations on Dec. 29, the committee heard.

Liberal MP Pam Damoff said Sunwing should not have booked passengers on flights without confirmed plans to have them properly staffed.

Andrew Dawson, president of tour operations for Sunwing Travel Group, said it has so far received 7,000 complaints about issues during the holiday travel season.

The subject of the complaints ranged from cancelled flights to passengers trying to recoup costs they incurred out of pocket, MPs heard.

Stranded passengers in Mexico told media they were shuffled between hotels and struggled to get answers from the airline about when they might be able to get home.

And in calling for the transport committee to probe the holiday travel debacle, MPs said they were hearing from passengers stuck in airports around the country who couldn’t get answers from their airlines about when they would be rebooked.

Representatives from Air Canada and WestJet told MPs that they did their best to brace for a busy holiday season, but had to grapple with the arrival of a winter storm that hammered airports.

WestJet vice-president Andrew Gibbons, who oversees external affairs,said the holiday problems showed the airline it must communicate better with its passengers.

“We have heard you and others and from our guests, specifically, that our guest communication was lacking. So we’re going to do a better job of that,” Gibbons said.

Gibbons pushed back against MPs’ assertions that the holiday travel headaches Canadians experienced is reason to strengthen existing air passenger protection regulations. Under those regulations, passengers can seek compensation from airlines when flights are delayed or cancelled.

During his testimony, Alghabra reiterated that he plans to beef up those rules with new legislation that could come as soon as this spring.

Federal Conservatives and New Democrats agree the rules must change, including to force airlines to compensate passengers automatically rather than travellers having to file a complaint when their flight is delayed or cancelled.

“We do not believe the priority right now should be additional penalties on the only group that has any accountability and regulations that govern it,” Gibbons said. “It should be to apply it equally to everyone as the top priority.”

“This is not about blame game. It is simply about improving the system overall,” he added.

NDP MP Taylor Bachrach pressed Air Canada officials to explain how passengers ended up stuck on the tarmac at Vancouver’s airport for more than 11 hours.

Kevin O’Connor, Air Canada’s vice-president of systems operations control, said they did not have a safe way to allow passengers a chance to disembark.

“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. All these were explored, all these questions were asked,” O’Connor said.

“Nobody wanted us to have customers on board for 11 hours or any time of a lengthy delay.”

Vancouver Airport Authority President Tamara Vrooman said the airport did not receive a request from the airline to bring food or water to passengers on board, and said the airline’s top request was to gain access to a gate.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2023.

Stephanie Taylor and Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

Stephanie Taylor and Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

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