The ripple effect of flight cancellations and lengthy delays continues to strand Canadian travellers and cause issues for airline Sunwing.
Ever since a winter storm hit Vancouver on Dec. 18, Sunwing passengers have been reporting flight delays on both outgoing trips and also returning flights — some up to five days.
Erin McCall had booked a Cancun vacation with her husband, four young children and in-laws for Dec. 17 to Dec. 24.
The Beaumont, Alta., woman said that Christmas Eve flight “didn’t happen.”
“There was no indication of any issues… up until we got on the shuttle to go to the airport,” she said.
“The minute we hit the airport, pandemonium. It was absolutely insane.”
Her in-laws flew back to Halifax on their scheduled WestJet flight on Dec. 24, but McCall and her family were told their Sunwing flight was delayed and to come back in two days.
“It was chaos,” she said. “They gave us zero updates.”
Late that night they were shuttled to a different resort in Cancun. Every day before noon, they had to check out, see if Sunwing had rebooked them, and then if not, hope the resort would have a spare room for them.
“We were essentially squatting at the hotel until about 7 p.m. every night.”
Their return flight fell through again, McCall said. They said Sunwing representatives kept telling them that it was delayed — possibly until Dec. 30 — but no other information was provided.
Finally, McCall’s in-laws booked the family a flight home on Dec. 29 through WestJet.
Overall, the family paid about $5,000 out of pocket to cover alternative flights, extended boarding fees for pets, airport parking and supplies for their extended stay in Mexico, like diapers and sunscreen.
McCall doesn’t expect to get any of that back unless the family pursues litigation against Sunwing.
“They don’t deserve to be in business. They don’t deserve to fly anyone anywhere.
“This was so much more than a delay,” she added.
“They refuse to even honour the slightest bit of their commitment to any passenger in any way… They deserve to go out of business.”
Passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs is urging people to take these claims to court.
“If Sunwing is refusing to pay voluntarily… that’s a normal course of business. You serve them with court papers.
“I urge passengers to stand their ground. The law is very much on your side,” said Lukacs, the president of Air Passenger Rights.
“That is the only way to set it clear once and for all that this type of behaviour is not going to be tolerated.
“The government makes it cheaper for airlines to disobey the law… than to actually respect passenger rights,” he said.
In an emailed statement to Global News Friday, Sunwing apologized to customers for the delays.
“Our teams continue to work around the clock to return our remaining customers home.
“We have now planned 43 recovery flights, 34 of which have already operated or will be complete by end of day today (Dec. 30). We expect most, if not all, remaining customers will be back home by Jan. 2.”
Sunwing said customers will be updated through flight alert notifications and through destination representatives.
“For customers delayed in destination, Sunwing is providing hotel accommodation, food and beverage, and airport transfers, regardless of the reason for the delay.”
The company acknowledged this has been a challenging time for teams locally and at destinations, “who have been working around the clock to help restore regular operations.”
In response to the federal transport minister calling the Sunwing situation “unacceptable,” the company said: “We recognize that, despite our best efforts, we have failed to deliver on our customers’ expectations, and we deeply apologize for this. We would also like to reassure our customers that our teams locally and in destination continue do everything possible to restore regular service and return our remaining delayed customers home.”
Sunwing announced Thursday it was cancelling all operations from Regina and Saskatoon airports up until and including Feb. 3, 2023.
In a message on Twitter, the company said it is aware that its operations have not been up to the expected standard and it is not serving customers properly.
“We regret to inform our customers in Saskatoon and Regina that, due to extenuating circumstances, we are unfortunately cancelling our operations from both airports. The cancellations will take immediate effect and apply to travel from both airports up to and including Fri. Feb. 3/23,” read the tweet.
“We know that, despite our best efforts, we have failed to deliver on our customers’ expectations, and we deeply apologize for not meeting the standards of service our Saskatoon and Regina customers rightfully expect.”
Customers with southbound flights will receive a full refund.
But Lukacs says: “Sunwing cannot force refunds on passengers.
“A passenger can choose to take a refund if they wish to, but that means Sunwing is off the hook in terms of its other obligations from that point on.”
He recommends passengers not accept the refund and instead insist Sunwing provide alterative transportation.
“If we are talking about a passenger from Saskatchewan who has not left yet, Sunwing is required to rebook them on other airlines,” Lukacs said.
He said this is not a cancellation due to weather; it’s a business decision.
Lukacs explained other airlines are guilty of this too, but if they cancel a flight and can’t rebook passengers within 48 hours, they must book customers on other airlines.
“That’s an obligation clearly set out in their passenger protection regulations, but they just shrugged and said: ‘We don’t care. The law doesn’t apply to us.'”
A media spokesperson for Sunwing told Global News on Friday that despite the halting of Saskatchewan service, the company does not have plans to suspend operations from Edmonton or Calgary.
“As for our customers from Saskatchewan who are currently in destination, some repatriation flights may connect through Edmonton.”
Megan Hall, a spokesperson for the Edmonton International Airport, said there were two departing Sunwing flights Friday that left on time, “but impacts in other areas are affecting some arrivals into Edmonton.”
Sunwing currently flies from Edmonton to Costa Rica, Jamaica, Cuba, Dominican Republic and various destinations in Mexico.
Andrew Leeming, the vice-president of operations at the Saskatoon Airport Authority, said it was clear Sunwing had to do something after all the delays and cancellations that started Dec. 18.
“Things just never got back to what I would call normal,” he said. “There was repeated cancellations, day-of flights, even when passengers were here at the airport.”
Still, cutting service entirely until Feb. 3 surprised him a little.
“That extensive five weeks of cancelled operations is pretty dramatic.”
The biggest impact Leeming foresees is with public frustration — Saskatchewan folks who have booked vacations well in advance and are now scrambling and let down.
“It’s highly disappointing for the passengers themselves and their expectations.”
Saskatchewan airports are still expecting a few recovery flights returning “tentatively” Saturday, “but… it’s dynamic.”