Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre says Ottawa must do more to hold airlines accountable for “breaking their word” to passengers and leaving them stranded in airports.
Speaking in Ottawa during a rare press conference with Parliament Hill journalists Friday, Poilievre laid the blame for the chaos endured by thousands of Canadian passengers over the last week at the foot of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, arguing airports and airlines are federally regulated and therefore a responsibility of the federal government.
“This is a federal problem,” Poilievre said.
“The solution, of course, is to have a Canadian Transportation Agency that holds airlines accountable for breaking their word to the people. That’s what the agency’s there for, it is a federal agency and it is the machinery of government that is the responsibility of the prime minister to make that agency work.”
Poilievre’s comments come as horror stories continue to surface from Canadians left stranded in Mexico after Sunwing cancelled their flights home.
Some Canadians described being shuffled between hotels in Mexico, sometimes arriving to find there were no rooms booked for them, saying Sunwing officials passed along inaccurate and incomplete information about when they would be booked on a flight home.
Travellers furious over cancelled flights and lack of communication
Passengers who did manage to return home say their Sunwing flights appeared “half-empty,” even as hundreds of Canadians remained stranded in Mexico, following significant disruptions caused by a major winter storm that disrupted travel plans across the country last weekend.
Meanwhile, some passengers have taken to social media with complaints that Sunwing has told them they would be compensated a far lower amount than is legally required for missing and lost luggage.
The travel company told multiple passengers it would compensate them up to US$450 — roughly C$600 — for replacing items in luggage that did not arrive at their destinations.
Sunwing has since “revised” that amount to C$2,000, but this is still lower than the C$2,300 maximum outlined in Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations that dictate what airlines must compensate for lost luggage.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said earlier this week that he was “very concerned” about the reports from passengers of Sunwing Airlines, calling the situation “unacceptable.”
“Passengers have rights under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations to ensure robust passenger protection in situations like these, and our government will continue to ensure these rights are protected,” Alghabra wrote in a statement published on Twitter.
But Poilievre says Ottawa is not doing enough to see these rights enforced. He pointed to a significant backlog that exists at the Canadian Transportation Agency — the regulatory body charged with enforcing new regulations that came into effect in 2019 that require airlines to compensate passengers for lost or damaged luggage and for delays and cancellations that are within an airline’s control.
The agency’s website says current wait times for passenger complaints to be reviewed “can be more than 18 months.”
“So, your entire vacation gets ruined, you’re sleeping on a cold, concrete floor at an airport somewhere, and what does Justin Trudeau offer you? The chance to file a complaint and wait 18 months to potentially get compensated,” Poilievre said Friday.
“Not good enough.”
He called on Ottawa to clear the backlog of complaints “so that the airlines can be held accountable for their miserable service,” Poilievre said.
He also said the federal government needs tougher and clearer rules to ensure passengers are compensated for ruined vacations.
Sunwing passengers demand compensation following ‘nightmare’ trip
Federal legislation grants the agency’s enforcement officers the power to investigate companies and individuals it believes have broken airline rules and to issue fines of up to $25,000.
The regulator’s website shows that in the past five years, just one carrier — WestJet, for 55 instances in late January — has been fined for not providing adequate compensation to passengers. The total penalty was $11,000.
Gabor Lukacs, president and founder of the Air Passenger Rights group, says many passengers don’t know what their rights are, due to the complexity of the rules that are in place.
And even when they do, enforcement is an issue, he told The Canadian Press earlier this week.
He encouraged Canadians to call their local member of Parliament and ask for better enforcement of air passenger rights in Canada.
“The government is turning a blind eye to airlines’ misconduct,” Lukacs said.
In response to Poilievre’s criticisms Friday, the transport minister’s office said travellers’ frustrations over delayed and cancelled flights this holiday season are understandable, reiterating that what they’ve experienced is “unacceptable.”
But Alghabra’s spokesperson Valérie Glazer also noted that Canada’s air passenger protection rules were put in place by the Liberals in 2019 and were even updated this fall to ensure compensation and refund rules also apply to flights that are cancelled or delayed for reasons outside of an air carrier’s control, including major weather events or a pandemic.
“In all the years that the Conservatives were in power, including the Conservative government that Pierre Poilievre was part of, they never did anything to protect air travellers,” Glazer said in a statement to Global News.
As for calls to clear the backlog at the Canadian Transportation Agency, Ottawa did earmark $11 million in Budget 2022 specifically to address the backlog, “and we will continue to work with them so that they have the necessary resources,” Glazer said.
The agency is an independent, quasi-judicial tribunal that operates at arms-length from the government, so measures Ottawa can take to address operational issues are limited.
Air travel complaints soar amid airline issues
But the federal government is pledging to work with airports to ensure smoother travel for passengers, Glazer said.
“We encourage passengers to stay updated on the situation by following the airport’s latest communication as they resume normal operations,” she said.
“Canadians can rest assured that we are doing everything we can to support them through these difficult times.”
Meanwhile, Sunwing Vacations Inc. said Thursday that it is sending out dozens of recovery flights this week to bring home the thousands of passengers stranded in Mexico.
“We continue to navigate unprecedented operational challenges, resulting in a number of ongoing flight delays,” airline president Len Corrado said in a statement.
“We deeply apologize for the impact to our customers’ travel plans over the holiday season.”
The airline said Thursday that it has 40 recovery flights planned this week, with 24 expected to be completed by the end of the day Thursday.
The airline blamed the disruptions on flight delays that piled up because of winter storms, which have been difficult to sort out because of displaced crews and airplanes.
Also on Thursday, Sunwing abruptly announced the immediate cancellation of operations in Saskatchewan until Feb. 4, 2023. Travellers with bookings in and out of the Regina and Saskatchewan airports would receive a refund within 30 days, the tour operator said.
— with files from The Canadian Press