It is “unacceptable” that hundreds of Canadian passengers remain stuck in Mexico after Sunwing cancelled their flights home — and the federal government is “concerned,” Transport Minister Omar Alghabra says.
His comments come after Canadians described being shuffled between hotels in Mexico, sometimes arriving to find there were no rooms booked for them, saying Sunwing officials have so far passed along inaccurate and incomplete information about when they might be able to head home.
Passengers who have managed to return home say their Sunwing flights appeared “half-empty,” even as hundreds of Canadians remain stranded in Cancun, Mexico, following significant disruptions over the weekend after a major winter storm disrupted travel plans across the country.
“Canadians are patient when it comes to weather disruptions but they rightly expect their airlines to keep them informed and to manage these disruptions smoothly,” Alghabra said in a Wednesday tweet.
“I am very concerned with the current situation with Sunwing Airlines.”
The ongoing situation, Alghabra added, is “unacceptable.”
“Canadians must receive the information they need to return home safely. We expect all airlines to keep their passengers informed when it comes to delivering a service that they were paid to do,” he wrote.
“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.”
But even as the minister points to passengers’ rights, Canadians are feeling the impact of the Sunwing chaos. Allan McLeod and Deanna Correia took a Sunwing flight to Cuba for their wedding. But as they sat on the plane, a crew member said the flight was going to leave without their luggage.
The couple arrived at their destination for the wedding, but had “no luggage, no wedding attire, no wedding decorations as well,” McLeod told Global News.
Correia added that they’ve received little information from Sunwing about when their wedding supplies will arrive, which has left her “frustrated” and “angry.”
“Something has to be done to make these companies, (these) airlines accountable,” she said.
The soon-to-be newlyweds aren’t alone in their frustration. Sheldon de Souza was among those trapped in Mexico as a result of Sunwing’s cancellations, alongside his wife, three kids and three family friends.
De Souza’s flight home on Dec. 21 was cancelled, according to The Canadian Press, though he says only some passengers were told.
“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.”
Read more: Stranded in paradise: airline catching up after flights delayed by severe weather disruptions
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 with The Canadian Press.
“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.”
Feds pledge accountability amid VIA Rail disruptions
Sunwing passengers aren’t the only Canadians facing massive travel hurdles over the holidays. VIA Rail left passengers in the lurch as the massive winter storm caused cancellations and delays throughout the Christmas weekend.
Passengers already on board of a VIA Rail train became stuck overnight near Kingston after a train derailed, forcing them to spend nearly 21 hours on the train with minimal food and water.
Pauline McNally arrived at Union Station in Toronto to pick up her brother on Friday night. With poor communication from VIA Rail and her brother’s train facing continual delays, she ended up waiting at the station for the entire night.
“Communication has been absolutely terrible,” she told Global News from Union Station on Saturday morning.
“I honestly think … they didn’t know, or what they knew, they didn’t want to share. And we got a totally different story depending on who we talked to.”
McNally’s brother, who suffers from short-term memory issues, couldn’t carry a credit card. He only had cash with him on board — which most VIA Rail trains don’t accept — prompting concerns from his sister that he wouldn’t have enough food.
“He couldn’t even buy food. So he’s been on that train, and if someone didn’t give him food, he didn’t have any,” she said.
At the station, multiple travellers expressed frustration that there was no contingency planning done for the storm. Passengers described arriving at the station with their bags packed, only to be told that their train had been cancelled as they waited in line.
Extra costs were incurred as passengers were forced to book hotels or rent cars — though many rentals were fully booked — while others were forced to miss or or pay a higher ticket price when they rebooked seats on another train.
In a statement sent to Global News on Wednesday, a spokesperson for VIA Rail said they “deeply regret the stress this has caused our passengers.”
“VIA Rail, of course, is providing a full refund and a travel credit to all the passengers who were on board trains that were delayed through the night,” the spokesperson said.
“From power outages to trees on the tracks and even a tree falling on a locomotive, conditions on the infrastructure maintained by CN made it impossible to move some of our trains.”
While VIA Rail said it tried to keep customers as “comfortable” as possible, they were unable to “replenish supplies of food and water” due to road closures in the area, and were “unable to empty the toilets.”
“All passengers reached their final destinations by the end of the day December 24th, but we do understand that for some it was a trying experience,” the spokesperson said.
As for the cancellations between December 24 and 26, the VIA Rail spokesperson said “all passengers” that had their trips cancelled “will automatically receive a full refund.”
“These passengers must contact VIA Customer Centre if they wish to obtain a refund for any connection or return trips on the same booking,” the statement added.
The spokesperson did not expand on what compensation those impacted by the “modified schedule” on Dec. 27 can expect, and did not acknowledge complaints about passengers being charged for food on trains that were stuck on the tracks overnight.
The transport minister also weighed in on the VIA Rail situation, using the same term he used to criticize the Sunwing situation: “unacceptable.”
“Passengers deserve to be communicated with, especially during the unprecedented weather conditions Canadians were experiencing. The safety of crew and passengers is always a top priority,” read a statement from Alghabra’s office.
“Our government will continue to work with partners and hold all those involved accountable.”
As for McNally, she did see one upside to the transport troubles that hampered her holiday plans.
“I think I’d make a good Christmas movie,” she said.
— with files from The Canadian Press, Global News’ Ahmar Khan