This holiday travel season will be remembered for cancelled flights, lost bags and stranded or abandoned passengers, people whose winter getaways were dashed by storms and the responses of the airlines they entrusted with their plans.
Canada’s aviation industry and flyers had hoped the December break would mark a recovery from nearly three years of the pandemic, and the summer of 2022, which featured airport chaos amid staff shortages.
Instead, the turmoil resurfaced with scores of cancelled flights condensed in the busiest travel days of the year. Sunwing Airlines’ collapse was the worst, with customers stranded for days in Mexico and other destinations complaining of poor communications from the carrier. WestJet Airlines, Air Canada and others cancelled flights as the storms grounded planes and halted crew transfers.
So why, in a country in which winter happens every year, were airlines and airports unable to operate as usual? And how did the airlines, which make much of their revenue selling tickets to people eager to escape cold weather, find themselves unable to operate?
The problems began with winter storms just before Christmas, in Western Canada and then in parts of Ontario and Quebec. But the safety problems were compounded by the fact that the airlines had few spare resources on which to rely. Their planes were largely full, and almost all were in use, making it hard to rebook passengers. And then there were the thinly stretched workforces, with many workers inexperienced, recent hires. The storms made it harder to move planes and crews where they were needed.
“They had so much demand [and] they had so little slack in their system, that when things went wrong, they couldn’t do anything,” said Barry Prentice, a University of Manitoba professor. “And then that tends to multiply.”
“The problem with this [storm],” said John Gradek, who teaches airline leadership at McGill University, “is it happened over Christmas.
“Flights at Christmas were sold out, if any disruption happened, there was very little flexibility on the part of the airline to recover and to provide seats for those passengers who got displaced,” Mr. Gradek said.
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The two days’ worth of flight cancellations in Vancouver, for instance, sent 100,000 passengers scrambling for different flights at a time few were available, he said, a scenario repeated at airports across the country. “It was a perfect storm, literally: snow in Christmas week, no seats available and major disruptions across North America.”
The snow and cold slowed and halted operations at many airports for safety reasons, causing a backup of planes, passengers and luggage. Passengers complained of being held on parked planes for hours, and of arriving at their destination without luggage. Others saw their vacations ruined completely.
WestJet cancelled 1,640 flights. Sunwing cancelled all flights from Vancouver between Dec. 22 and 25, and postponed much of its schedule elsewhere. It also cancelled all flights from Regina and Saskatoon until Feb. 3 as it leased planes to bring home stranded vacationers.
“As a carrier scaling up to meet our highest demand in years, we built an achievable plan which, due to a confluence of factors, we could no longer deliver, and we regret that we did not meet the level of service our customers expect from Sunwing,” the Toronto-based airline said in a statement.
In an e-mail, Calgary-based WestJet said the weather affected crew and aircraft availability across its network. “Despite the best efforts of our crew scheduling/planning teams, active weather systems can result in aircraft and crew becoming out of position for multiple safety-related reasons, including mandatory crew rest requirements resulting in delays and cancellations far past the affected region,” said spokeswoman Madison Kruger.
“This holiday season, we saw this compounded as adverse weather systems simultaneously impacted our operations across Canada.”
Bernard Lewall, a WestJet pilot and union executive at Air Line Pilots Association, International, said in a video posted to social media that the disruptions are “unacceptable.”
“I’ve been here 17 years; I’ve never seen it this bad. We’re not treating the customer the way we used to treat them,” he said.
Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick declined to say how many flights were cancelled but said the “vast majority of our customers who planned to travel were able to do so. Between Dec. 15 and Jan. 4, we operated more than 17,000 flights and safely carried in excess of 2.1 million customers.”
Air Canada flies an average of 1,000 interconnected flights a day, and a delay in one part of the country can lead to disruptions and missing bags in another.
“An aircraft can be scheduled to fly from Toronto to Calgary to Vancouver and then to a southern destination in one day,” he said. “But if it is held up by weather anywhere, then it is late for its next flights or its next flights may have to be cancelled if the crew operating them are close to or over their legislated duty day and replacements are unavailable. It can also affect ground operations as people’s work schedules are synced to our operating schedules.”
John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa, said the risks of running an airline have become more pronounced as climate change increases the frequency of storms that disrupt travel. “It was kind of an accident waiting to happen,” he said.
“The difficulty is I believe that there’s not a lot of regulation on private airlines,” Mr. Lawford said. Airlines are not required by Ottawa to show they have contingency plans to recover from service failures, nor do they need to reach agreements with other airlines to share cabin space should their planes go out of service.
Passengers have the protection of federal rules that require airlines to provide refunds, rebooking and sometimes compensation when flights are delayed or cancelled. But airlines are not required to provide food and overnight accommodation if a cancellation is because of reasons outside an airline’s control, such as a snowstorm in Calgary. And with the airline complaints backlog at the Canadian Transportation Agency reaching 30,000, the rules offer little solace to aggrieved passengers.
Without providing details, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said legislation enacting tougher rules governing the rights of passengers and airline behaviour are on the way. They will likely be introduced in the spring after consultations, he said by phone.
“The operational decisions made by independent organizations are not my responsibility,” he said. “But I am aware that the public expects the government to set the rules and improve the rules and I’m determined at doing that,” Mr. Alghabra said.
Mr. Alghabra said it is a mistake to compare the summer air travel problems with the recent snarls. The former were because of an unprepared and poorly staffed aviation industry, including the government agencies that work within it. The recent problems stemmed from weather disruptions and were felt by all airlines in North America.
He said his own return flight on Dec. 27 from a trip to Europe and the Middle East was smooth and he passed quickly through Toronto Pearson Airport. But he knows that was not the case for all travellers, particularly Sunwing customers. He called Sunwing’s cancellations and poor communication “unacceptable.”
“We saw for the most part a quick recovery. But what we also saw was a unique failure that happened at Sunwing, a self-acknowledged operational failure in responding and communicating with customers.”