Canada’s transport minister denied he was “missing in action” as travellers faced delays and cancellations over the busy holiday season during a sometimes contentious committee hearing Thursday.
Omar Alghabra told the House of Commons Transport, Infrastructure and Communities committee he was being briefed multiple times a day by his staff as they spoke with Canada’s major airlines, whose executives also appeared to face questions from MPs over their handling of the disruptions.
Those executives and officials from the Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver airport authorities told the committee earlier Thursday they did not hear from Alghabra directly during the holiday season.
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Conservative MPs accused Alghabra of “passing the buck” by not picking up the phone himself as the chaos unfolded, which the minister denied, explaining his staff were acting on his behalf.
“I was deeply involved and briefed,” he said. “The airlines and airports were not confused about my instructions or my feelings about what was happening, about my expectations.
“I want to tell you that our government is not hiding.”
Thursday’s meeting was the first in what’s expected to be a series of hearings that the transport committee will hold on the holiday chaos. Committee MPs are probing the lengthy travel delays and the treatment of thousands of air and rail passengers who faced cancellations and rescheduled trips.
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.
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Alghabra said he hopes to table legislation during the spring session of Parliament that will address gaps in the Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR), including finding ways to remove the burden from passengers to prove they deserve compensation from airlines. He also said he is looking at increased fines for airlines in order to hold them accountable.
Current legislation grants the Canadian Transportation Agency, which acts as the federal airline regulator, 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 2022 — has been fined for not providing adequate compensation to passengers. The total penalty was $11,000.
Canadian Transportation Agency chair and CEO France Pégeot clarified that penalty was because WestJet did not respond to those compensation complaints within 30 days as required by the APPR.
She said the agency has never fined an airline for failing to provide compensation under the legislation, despite a backlog of over 30,000 complaints.
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WestJet was also fined $20,000 last year for multiple instances of failing to provide passengers a reason for delayed or cancelled flights in late December 2021 and early January 2022. Other airlines, including Air Canada and Flair, have been fined for the same violation in recent years.
Opposition members on the committee said the maximum fines are not severe enough to dissuade airlines, pointing to far higher fines levied in the United States.
“Why does this government treat the airlines with kid gloves?” NDP MP Taylor Bachrach asked Alghabra.
“We are not treating airlines with kid gloves,” the minister responded. “In fact we are looking at further strengthening the rules to ensure passengers are protected.”
Airlines say weather led to ‘compounding’ disruptions
Earlier Thursday, officials with Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing told the committee that severe winter storms in multiple provinces resulted in “compounding” disruptions that impacted airlines’ ability to operate effectively.
“Our preparation efforts began early in the fall for this winter’s peak season, holding weekly meetings, tracking our preparedness towards peak. What we could not have foreseen in this preparation was the compounding scale of the weather events that we encountered in our system between Dec. 18 and Dec. 24,” said Scott Wilson, vice president of flight operations with WestJet.
“In my 22 years at WestJet, this was the most significant weather-induced disruption that I have experienced. Canadian air carriers have some of the most significant experience in cold weather and winter operations. Mother Nature, however, always has the ability to show us where our limits are.”
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Kevin O’Connor, vice-president of system operations control with Air Canada, described the storm as being “extreme,” citing four-foot-long icicles forming on aircraft and bridges in Vancouver, ineffective de-icing fluid due to deep cold in Calgary, and frozen baggage systems in Toronto.
“Because we are a network carrier that operates interconnected flights, severe weather can drastically impact our schedule and our movement of people and their baggage,” he said.
“A delay in one part of the country has a knock-on effect across our network.”
Len Corrado, president of Sunwing Airlines, cited similar issues, as well as a pilot shortage that the pilots’ union denied was an issue during the chaos.
Hundreds of Canadians were stranded in Mexico and other sunny destinations over the holidays when Sunwing cancelled flights due to the storm.
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.
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Corrado, who apologized previously in a statement, expressed his sorrow once again to committee members.
“With all this said, the bottom line is we know we could have done better. 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.”
Pégeot said enforcement agents with the CTA are currently investigating whether Sunwing’s actions over the holidays violated the APPR.
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Andrew Dawson, president of tour operations with Sunwing Travel Group, told committee members that Sunwing has received 7,000 complaints so far for various issues, including extra expenses incurred and refunds.
Andrew Gibbons, vice-president of external affairs, pleaded with committee members for reform of the APPR, saying airlines can’t be the only member of the travel industry held responsible for disruptions.
“We also believe that the government must address the most glaring gap in consumer protection in Canada today, and this is the fact that your delay or cancel can be caused by many groups, yet only airlines have regulations governing our activities,” he said.
“We believe this committee should demand equal policies for any entity that provides a service that can result in a delay or cancel. This includes government entities, airport authorities, NAV Canada and others. Strengthening overall accountability across our entire aviation system will improve service for all, bring down complaints and provide the transparency our guests and all travellers deserve.”
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Airlines, however, have contracts with customers and have to consider all the processes involved with air travel, said Deborah Flint, president and chief executive officer with the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.
“We do know that the minister is looking into the APPR and the regulations and we welcome that conversation and providing our input into that as well,” she said.
Tamara Vrooman, president and chief executive officer of the Vancouver Airport Authority, said she would welcome the opportunity to discuss the responsibility of airports.
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David Rheault, vice-president of government and community relations at Air Canada, also echoed the need for “shared accountability,” and said Ottawa must invest and modernize aerospace infrastructure.
“At present, hundreds of millions of dollars are taken from passengers and the industry in taxes, fees and airport rent, and put into general revenue. This money should be reinvested into the air transportation infrastructure,” he said.
“We need to move forward with digitization, facility upgrades and other improvement. This would benefit people by making travel easier, and also ensure the system is more robust enough to withstand irregular operation.”
Holding airlines accountable
Alghabra told the committee he will welcome input to the proposed changes to the APPR from stakeholders and Canadians themselves once the legislation is introduced. He said recommendations from the committee’s study will also be incorporated.
Thursday’s meeting was scheduled after committee members unanimously voted Monday to hear from Alghabra and industry executives.
During Monday’s meeting, the transportation committee also agreed to hear from VIA Rail. No officials from that organization were listed as appearing on Thursday. Committee meetings beyond Thursday were not immediately scheduled.
The committee’s motion on Monday also indicated members want to hear directly from Canadians who were impacted by the delays.