As hundreds of Canadians scramble to get home after their Sunwing flights from Mexico were cancelled last week, a passengers’ rights advocate says stranded travellers should consider legal action if they aren’t compensated by the airline.
As of Sunday, hundreds of Canadian travellers were stuck in Cancun, Mexico after Sunwing cancelled their flights home. Some described being shuffled from hotel to hotel, sometimes arriving to find there were no rooms booked for them, while Sunwing officials offered inaccurate and incomplete information about when they might get home.
Sheldon de Souza said in an interview Monday that a similar situation is playing out in Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s west coast. He said he flew there with his wife, three kids and three family friends on Dec. 14, with a flight home scheduled with Sunwing on Dec. 21.
That flight was cancelled, though only some passengers were told, he said. Several days of incomplete information and confusion from Sunwing followed, he said.
He and a group of fellow passengers were moved to different hotels and asked to check out each day and report back to the lobby every hour, in case there was news of a flight.
Sunwing officials at the hotel would say there was a flight coming up then, hours later, would say it had been cancelled, de Souza said. He said in the meantime, the flights wouldn’t show up on the airport’s daily schedules, leading de Souza to believe he was being misled.
He said he booked himself a spot on an Air Canada flight back to Calgary on Dec. 23, which cost him about $1,000. His wife, his children and their friends managed to get a Sunwing flight home on Boxing Day, but only because they started showing up at the airport to push for a spot, he said.
He said they had snagged seats on a Sunwing flight to Edmonton late on Christmas Day, even making it to the gate with boarding passes. But then officials said the crew were beyond their allowed maximum working hours and the plane was cancelled.
“It felt like Sunwing just abandoned us, they didn’t care,” de Souza said. “It’s not even that they made an effort, they forgot us.”
He said there were “several hundred” Canadians stranded in Puerto Vallarta when he left, and some are likely still there.
Sonal de Souza, their kids, Sarah Pereire and her child finally made it home to Calgary on Monday, after a five-day delay and three resorts later. But the extended stay was not vacation-like, Sonal said.
“You’re walking around with all your important documents. You’re not really enjoying it because you’re keeping an eye on your phone to make sure you’re not missing any communication to make sure you can get out.
“And the communication from Nexus, that’s the representative in Puerta Vallarta, was awful. They said there’s a flight coming in for you. Make sure you’re at the lobby at 8:30. Pickup is at 9. We waited until 11:30. Nobody showed up to pick us up.”
In the wake of “no communication from Nexus or Sunwing at all,” the group went to the airport themselves, “demanding to get on a flight.”
And, the flight home “was half empty,” Pereire said.
Both women say they’ll seek compensation from Sunwing.
“I don’t discount the flight was delayed because of weather, but five days?” Sonal said.
“We know because we’re all in a group chat, there’s people stranded that have been kicked out of the hotel, have no place to go and Sunwing is not responding,” she added.
Other stranded passengers reported half-empty return flights from Mexico.
Gabor Lukacs, president and founder of the Air Passenger Rights group, says passengers grappling with cancelled flights and inadequate information about when they might be rebooked should buy their own tickets home with a different carrier, and keep careful records and receipts of their expenses.
If Sunwing refuses to compensate them under the federal Air Passenger Protection Regulations, they should take the matter to small claims court, Lukacs said in an interview.
“We’re at a point in Canada where suing an airline is not simply about your own money, it’s about changing how they operate. It’s about behaviour modification,” he said. “And that’s where the government is derelict in its duties to the public.”
He said passengers should also phone their local member of Parliament and ask for better enforcement of passenger rights in Canada.
The federal Air Passenger Protection Regulations mandates airlines to pay up to $1,000 in compensation for cancellations or significant delays that stem from reasons within the carrier’s control when the notification comes 14 days or less before departure.
Lukacs said it’s unlikely Sunwing will voluntarily pay up. The Canadian Transportation Agency, which acts as the federal airline regulator, doesn’t do enough to hold airlines accountable, he said, so they don’t feel much pressure to obey the rules.
Federal legislation grants the agency’s enforcement officers the power to investigate companies and individuals it believes have broken the 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.
Lukacs said the agency isn’t issuing enough fines. “The government is turning a blind eye to airlines’ misconduct,” he said.
The Canadian Transportation Agency did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
In an email to Global News Tuesday, Sunwing said “a number of return flights continue to be impacted by delays due to displaced crew and aircraft resulting from the aftermath of severe weather disruptions across Canada.
“Our teams are working hard to reaccommodate customers in destination by subservicing aircraft, and arranging alternate hotels and transfers for those with overnight delays,” a Sunwing spokesperson said.
“Our teams continue to proactively work around the clock with several airline partners to subservice aircraft and return customers home.
“We have completed two recovery flights so far this week, have planned another eight recovery flights which are scheduled to depart between today and Dec. 30, 2022, and are currently finalizing recovery plans for our remaining passengers in destination. Additional information will be provided to customers through flight alert notifications and their destination representatives once rescheduled return flights are confirmed. In the meantime, customers can sign up for flight alerts on Sunwing.ca.”
Sunwing also said passengers who are at their destination but want to book an earlier flight home on another carrier can do so at their own cost and then submit a refund request for their unused Sunwing flight.
Customers currently in destination who would prefer to book an earlier return flight on another carrier can do so at their own cost, should they so choose, and may submit a refund request for their unused Sunwing return flight.”
Edmontonian Matthew Hudson is stuck in Cancun with his family of five after Sunwing cancelled their return flight home.
“It’s been at least 24 hours now,” he told Global News on Tuesday afternoon. “I expect it will be longer.
“It actually started before we left. We were delayed by over 24 hours even leaving, which, in retrospect, should have been a red flag.”
Hudson said there are several other travellers in the same boat at their resort. Some have been delayed for days, he said.
“It definitely adds to the stress. We have zero trust in anything that’s being told to us by Sunwing,” he said. “Our only option is to look on the app and hope. We’ve received essentially no communication from them — no updates, no updates to our travel arrangements, no mention of a hotel, or any sort of benefits, a meal, anything. It’s been zero communication.”
It’s meant unexpected out-of-pocket expenses for Hudson and his family.
“Our room that we’re spending the night in tonight — which was the only room available — was $1,400 USD, so that’s out of pocket. We’ve booked alternative flights home with WestJet, which leave the day after tomorrow, and that’s going to cost us almost $5,000.
“We have nowhere to stay tomorrow, as of now.”
Hudson said, after this experience, they’ll never travel with a small, vacation-based airline again.
“Definitely never Sunwing.
“This should be a wake-up call to the Canadian airline industry and should be a wake-up call to the government in terms of rules and regulations surrounding air travel.”
— With files from Emily Mertz, Global News