Canadian low cost carrier Sunwing Airlines had a rough patch these past couple of weeks (months really) and the airline is currently being bombarded with complaints of customers.
Likewise, thousands of delays and cancellations have also caused a massive complaint wave to Canadian MP’s and the CTA, with the result that now there is a political focus on the carrier.
Just like the meltdowns with Southwest Airlines operations a few weeks ago, it begs the question of how long a carrier should be allowed to inconvenience the public with shambolic operations until regulators start forcing changes.
Until now, I have to admit that Sunwing was not really an airline I had heard much about, even though the name sometimes popped up from time to time in our local newspapers in Vancouver or the national ones. Never in a positive connotation, I might add.
But things seem to have escalated even further to the point where the airline’s operations in Canada are now a complete mess.
As the CBC reported there are now parliamentary committee hearings into the situation and executives have responded.
Sunwing Airlines has received 7,000 complaints so far from customers unhappy with the airline’s performance during a turbulent holiday travel season that saw many customers stranded abroad.
Sunwing executives told MPs on the House of Commons standing committee on transport, infrastructure and communities Thursday that the airline cancelled 67 flights between December 15 and 31, in part because of staff shortages. Sunwing president Len Corrado said the airline struggled after the federal government declined its request to hire 63 pilots as temporary foreign workers.
Members of Parliament are questioning airline executives and airport authorities on Thursday about the travel chaos that erupted during the holidays.
Hundreds of air passengers were stranded over the holiday season after airlines cancelled or delayed flights, largely due to a major storm that hit much of Canada around Christmas.
Even though the House of Commons isn’t sitting right now, MPs on the transport committee met Monday and unanimously supported calling witnesses to discuss the travel debacle.
Executives from WestJet and Air Canada also testified.
Sunwing, a smaller airline that offers flights to warm southern destinations, faced the brunt of MPs’ questions Thursday.
Sunwing president Len Corrado began his testimony 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 in his opening statement before the committee.
His colleague Andrew Dawson, the president of tour operations at Sunwing Travel Group, said the airline has received approximately 7,000 complaints so far. Many of them are demanding partial compensation or full refunds for their travel troubles over the holidays.
Conservative tansport critic Mark Strahl wanted to know why Sunwing had sold flights departing from Saskatchewan when it didn’t have pilots to fly the planes.
“I find it very troubling that you would have booked travel, taken money from Canadians, when you didn’t have pilots lined up for the flights that you were selling,” Strahl said.
Carrado answered that Sunwing had applied to hire 63 pilots as temporary foreign workers to meet the demand, and that the airline’s legal team informed Sunwing executives the application would be successful.
But on December 9, 2022, Carrado said, the airline got word that the application had been rejected. Carrado added that Sunwing attempted to shift resources and alter its schedule to make up for the shortfall, but that plan wasn’t entirely successful.
“We failed to deliver to the level we had expected to,” Carrado said.
All airline executives appearing before the committee pointed to similar difficulties with holiday flights, including the winter storm, staffing shortages and equipment and infrastructure that failed due to freezing temperatures.
“In my 22 years at WestJet, this was the most significant weather-induced disruption that I have experienced,” Scott Wilson, WestJet’s vice-president of flight operations, told committee members.
“Mother Nature always has the ability to show us where our limits are.” …
The Sunwing and WestJet executives said they need to improve on customer communications and are looking at making changes.
Representatives of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), Aéroports de Montreal and the Vancouver Airport Authority also testified.
Deborah Flint, GTAA president and CEO, also blamed weather and labour issues for the holiday disruptions.
“This holiday, what happened, it was really a perfect storm of significant, epic bad weather, and in an industry that is healing from the COVID extended shutdown,” Flint said.
Flint added that the industry is dealing with workforce attrition and said it needs to find a way to appeal to more prospective workers. “Labour today is not what it was,” she said.
Tamara Vrooman, president and CEO of the Vancouver Airport Authority, also pointed to the winter storm but said the airport could have done a better job of addressing delays.
“I also believe passengers spent an unacceptable amount of time on YVR’s tarmac,” she said.
Passengers in Vancouver reported being left waiting on the tarmac for up to 12 hours with no access to food or water.
When asked, Vrooman said the airport didn’t offer food and water to be taken to planes stuck waiting for a gate to open, but added that airlines didn’t request any assistance on that front.
“We certainly were constantly asking what support they needed, and airlines were saying uncategorically they needed access to the gates. And so that was our priority,” she said.
In a news conference before the committee meeting Thursday morning, NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach called on Alghabra to bring forward legislation that would make air passenger protection laws closer to those in the European Union. …
As always, there is a lot of grandstanding by politicians that felt the wrath of their constituents but that most often does very little to help with the current situation. In fact, as I have often said in my comments about Canadian aviation issues, the government regulator which is the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) hasn’t done much to really regulate the industry at all. Most of the time, the agency has rubber-stamped consumer unfriendly decisions, such as Air Canada’s decision to issue vouchers instead of cash refunds to customers whose flights were canceled.
The chickens of decades of inaction are now coming home to roost. Canada did implement some stricter laws that regulate delays and cancellations, but it’s a far cry from that what the EU regulation EC261/2004 prescribes. Some politicians are now calling for Canadian laws to be tightened, and airlines are to be called to account for their shambolic operations.
I don’t expect much of this to happen; Air Canada and their Ottawa lobbyists will likely be able to quash that effort once again. And with all criticism of Sunwing, Air Canada isn’t far behind as far as reliability and passenger rights are concerned.
We also had some readers who were impacted by Sunwing cancellations and delays. There is very little one can do when impacted other than fall back on travel insurance and try to make the ordeal as comfortable as possible while it’s ongoing. Some insurance policies offer reimbursement of hotel expenses, delayed luggage expenditure costs and trip interruption coverage.
I recommend all travelers familiarize themselves with the details of their travel insurance policy, be it from a premium credit card or a standalone policy.
Canada’s Sunwing Airlines had a very bad performance during these winter months, resulting in thousands of complaints and a parliamentary inquiry as to what is currently going on with their operations.
It’s not uncommon for airlines to accumulate a large number of complaints at a time. Considering the rough patch they were on, 7000 doesn’t sound like a very high number but Sunwing isn’t a large airline either. In the end, one has to remember that flying on a low-cost carrier always comes with certain risks, especially as it relates to operations and complaint management.
Even if the carrier is liable by law to reimburse a passenger, they often don’t until the customer seeks legal representation and/or sues the carrier in court. 9 out of 10 people won’t do that and that’s exactly the calculation that allows such carriers to get away with their behavior. Always (!) get your reimbursements and if you don’t want to do the legwork yourself, then give it to one of the complaint-handling agencies where applicable. Those will, of course, take a cut, but that’s still better than leaving it unresolved. Small claims court is an option as well.