A Nova Scotia family is upset after Sunwing cancelled their March break flight to Orlando, Fla., with little explanation.
Kevin Hindle said he and his wife made the decision at the end of October to take their daughter, son-in-law, and their two kids to Disney World and booked their flights and accommodations through Sunwing.
The trip was announced to the grandkids, aged five and seven, as a Christmas present. They got Disney-themed backpacks and personal invitations from Disney characters.
“(My granddaughter) jumps off the couch and starts dancing — ‘We’re going to Disney! We’re going to Disney!’” said Hindle.
But now that trip won’t be taking off.
The first “hiccup” came in November, Hindle said, after Sunwing cancelled their flight scheduled for March 10, which was initially supposed to land in Melbourne, Fla., about an hour from Orlando.
They learned that the flight had actually been moved to Orlando, and Sunwing wanted them to rebook at a more expensive price point.
With the help of their travel agent, Hindle said they were able to successfully get their flight transferred, and he thought all was well.
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Fast forward to Jan. 9., and Hindle’s travel agent got an email from Sunwing, saying the airline’s planned flight schedule between Halifax and Orlando between Feb. 10 and May 5 was cancelled.
The email said it was due to “unanticipated business or operation constraints,” and no other reason was given.
Hindle said it’s not fair that the airline cancelled the route with next to no explanation after selling the tickets months ago.
“If it’s weather-related, or something like that, that’s different. But this isn’t,” he said.
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“You’re just pulling service for several months, but why? If you don’t have the staff, you don’t have the planes, or operationally, you can’t make commitments, then OK, say so.”
Hindle said his flights were refunded, but he already spent another $3,600 on tickets to the park — which, according to the Disney World Resort website, are non-refundable and non-transferable — in addition to $1,200 on travel insurance for the family.
“So, there’s $4,800 that Sunwing’s not going to cover,” he said.
Hindle is trying to figure out other ways to get six people to Florida over March break, “and right now, that doesn’t look like it’s going to be possible.”
“The kids were just over the top, but now, here we are,” he said. “The kids don’t know yet … we’re just dreading the thought (of having) to tell them.”
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In December, Sunwing announced it was cancelling all flights out of Regina and Saskatoon until Feb. 3.
It made no formal announcement of cancelled flights in the Maritimes, but confirmed in a statement late Friday evening that it was cancelling and consolidating select flights to southern destinations from Halifax, Fredericton and Moncton.
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This is “to ensure we are delivering the standards of service our customers both expect and deserve when travelling with Sunwing,” it said.
It said affected customers are provided “multiple options,” including the ability to get a full refund.
“At this time, we are not planning further reductions to our winter program from Atlantic Canada airports, however customers will be advised should there be any changes to their upcoming travel plans,” it said.
In a statement, Halifax International Airport Authority spokesperson Leah Batstone said the airport was aware that Sunwing has made reductions to its winter schedule, affecting services to Orlando, Cayo Largo del Sur and Varadero.
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“We understand the airline is communicating these changes to affected travellers,” she said.
“We expect Sunwing’s other services from Halifax Stanfield, including flights to various destinations in the Caribbean, Jamaica and Mexico, to continue.”
In a statement on its Facebook page, Fredericton International Airport said, “some customers are receiving notices of changes to their Sunwing flights from New Brunswick.”
It said Sunwing has cancelled flights from Fredericton to Cayo Coco “due to operational constraints,” though flights to Cancun, Punta Canada and Cayo Santa Maria are operating as scheduled.
In an interview, Hindle’s travel agent, Amber Hughes, said these cancellations came as a blow, because flights out of Halifax are already “very limited” during that time of year.
“Sunwing is more prevalent, they usually start in early January and go right to the beginning of May. So in the Maritimes — as Saskatchewan was — we mostly have Sunwing to sell, there’s not many other choices,” she said.
Hughes said people might not know that travel agents do not get paid until the client actually travels — so if the trip is cancelled, all the time spent booking flights and hotels, putting in requests, and handling invoices and payments can be for nought.
“I can spend hours, or sometimes weeks with clients, choosing the right place they want to stay, and then I end up getting nothing,” she said.
While clients get reimbursed for their flights, Hughes said travel agents’ commissions aren’t protected.
“Not only do you lose your vacation, we’ve lost hours and hours of work,” she said.
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Hughes said she has been unable to get more information about why Sunwing has been cancelling their flights.
She said she was able to find some availability for flights and accommodations through other carriers, but it would cost more than double what they would have paid with Sunwing.
Wendy Paradis, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, said the association has been hearing about Sunwing cancellations from its members.
“At this point in time, Sunwing has not made a formal announcement saying what programs are going forward this winter and what programs are being cancelled. They seem to be happening one city at a time,” she said.
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Paradis said the association was “incredibly disappointed” on behalf of both the travellers who are having their trips cancelled after weeks and months of planning, and the travel agents who won’t be reimbursed for their time and effort.
She said the association is advocating for operators to compensate travel agents for the time they put into their bookings, and have raised their concerns with the federal government.
Meanwhile, Hindle is holding out hope that they’ll somehow find a way to get their grandkids to Disney World.
He said if all else fails, the family is considering taking their vacation money and using it to take them to Canada’s Wonderland in the summer.
“We’ll come up with something, but it’s just not the same,” he said.
Sunwing, as well as other airlines and Transport Canada, have come under scrutiny in recent weeks after travellers faced chaos over the holidays.
Although severe storms across the country were a major factor, the committee is looking into how the air and rail industries could better prepare for worsening winter conditions and improve their customer relations services, and whether the government is properly protecting travellers who face interruptions to their plans.
Hundreds of Canadians were stranded in Mexico and other sunny destinations over the holidays when Sunwing cancelled flights due to stormy weather.
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Passengers described being shuffled between hotels, sometimes arriving to find there were no rooms booked for them. The stranded Canadians said Sunwing officials also passed along inaccurate and incomplete information about when they might be able to head home.
Len Corrado, president of Sunwing Airlines, previously apologized in a statement and expressed his sorrow once again earlier this week during a House of Commons Transport, Infrastructure and Communities committee meeting.
“When even one customer is let down by their experience with our airline, I consider that a failure,” he said.
“We’d like to reassure committee members and Canadians that we are committed to providing the quality of service experience they’ve come to expect from us over the last 20 years.”
Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) chair and CEO France Pégeot said enforcement agents are currently investigating whether Sunwing’s actions over the holidays violated Air Passenger Protection Regulations.
— with files from Global News’ Sean Boynton and Aaron D’Andrea