‘No hiding’: Transport minister says Ottawa to be held accountable for travel woes

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

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

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

Alghabra said the winter storm that battered most of the country and triggered the widespread outages did not lead to lapses by government agencies in charge of customs and airport security screening, or long security lines like those seen at Canada’s largest airport. airport last summer.

But he promised that the federal liberals would take responsibility for 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 problem during the holidays was that passengers felt left in the dark when airlines delayed or canceled their trips.

Earlier in the day, executives from Sunwing Airlines, WestJet and Air Canada offered a mix of explanations and apologies for what happened over the holiday, blaming the chaos on Mother Nature.

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

The airline’s president, Len Corrado, opened his remarks before the committee with an apology.

“We did not meet the level that we expected and that the Canadians expected of us during this Christmas season,” he said.

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

Sunwing drew further anger by announcing on December 29 that it would cancel all flights from Saskatchewan through early February.

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Corrado said Thursday that was because the airline’s request to bring 63 foreign temporary pilots on board for the winter was rejected, leaving it without staff for all its flights.

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

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

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

The subject of the complaints ranged from canceled flights to passengers trying to recover out-of-pocket costs, lawmakers heard.

Passengers stranded in Mexico told the media they were shuttled between hotels and struggled to get answers from the airline about when they could get home.

And calling on the transport committee to investigate the holiday travel debacle, MPs said they were hearing from passengers stuck in airports across the country who couldn’t get answers from their airlines about when they would rebook.

Representatives from Air Canada and WestJet told lawmakers they did their best to prepare for a busy Christmas season, but had to deal with the arrival of a winter storm that hit airports.

WestJet vice president Andrew Gibbons, who oversees external affairs, said the holiday woes showed the airline needs to communicate better with its passengers.

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

Gibbons took issue with claims by MPs that the headaches Canadians experience during holiday travel are a reason to strengthen existing air passenger protection regulations. Under those regulations, passengers can seek compensation from airlines when flights are delayed or cancelled.

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

Federal conservatives and New Democrats agree the rules need to change, including to force airlines to compensate passengers automatically instead of travelers having to file a complaint when their flight is delayed or cancelled.

“We don’t think the priority right now should be additional sanctions for the only group that has accountability and regulations governing it,” Gibbons said. “It should be applying it equally to everyone as the top priority.”

“This is not about a blame game. It’s just about improving the overall system,” she added.

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

Kevin O’Connor, Air Canada’s vice president of systems operations control, said they had no secure way to allow passengers to disembark.

“The airport was unable to keep up with proper apron cleaning. Employees couldn’t tow planes. We couldn’t disembark using air stairs on an open surface and transport the passengers to the terminal. All of this was explored, all of these questions were asked,” O’Connor said.

“No one wanted us to have customers on board for 11 hours or anytime during a long delay.”

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

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

Stephanie Taylor and Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

Stephanie Taylor and Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

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