A not-so-festive season for Canadian travellers
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On Dec. 23, the federal government released a rather slick, cinematic video clearly intended as a mood-setter for the Christmas celebration that followed.
Dark and suspenseful by design, the two-and-a-half-minute clip featured Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra in a Mission: Impossible-style scenario that begins with the PM, in what appears to be a dimly lit tunnel, checking his watch and then using his cellular device to contact the transport minister.
“Omar,” he says, “it’s time.”
Mr. Alghabra, stationed in an equally dimly lit parking garage, collects a briefcase from a mysterious black SUV and proceeds to an underground bunker, where he opens the case, uses a hammer to smash a red Christmas-tree ornament marked “Accept Mission” and employs a key and code contained therein to send an electronic signal — to Santa Claus, who, upon receiving the blinking-light beacon, grabs the keys to his sled and heads off on the Canadian arm of his around-the-world mission.
Smiling broadly, Mr. Alghabra turns to the camera and says, “Santa is cleared for travel in Canadian airspace. He’s coming!”
All of which amounts to a too-cute-by-half way for the Trudeau government, under the auspices of Transport Canada, to wish Canadians a Merry Christmas and happy holidays.
One can’t help wondering, however, how this message of merriment and joyful travel clearances was received by the thousands of Canadians whose festive plans were grounded or who were left stranded far from home by flight delays and cancellations triggered by severe weather events and exacerbated by logistical and staffing inadequacies at several of the airlines under the regulation of Transport Canada, the video’s sponsoring agency.
“Tone deaf” might be the first words uttered in response to the transport minister’s giddy “He’s coming!” declaration. And what might follow are numerous questions regarding why this country’s air-transportation system suffered such a catastrophic failure at a time Canadians most needed it to perform.
Particular distressing is the manner in which Sunwing — a Toronto-based travel whose assets include an airline and a destination-management company — seemingly abandoned thousands of its customers after severe weather disrupted travel out of numerous Canadian airports.
As noted in news reports, the severe weather’s impact on travel was beyond anyone’s control; it’s what happened in the aftermath that has — and justifiably so — left Canadian travels so outraged. Sunwing’s strategy for attempting to make good on its commitments to deliver passengers to and from destinations included the complete suspension of flights in and out of Saskatchewan until early February.
“Extenuating circumstances” was Sunwing’s rationale for temporarily repositioning assets to other locales. “Irresponsible” is how Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe described the strategic decision.
What the holiday-season travel meltdown has exposed are the inadequacies of Canada’s travel sector, in which competition is muted at best (Sunwing is in the process of being absorbed by WestJet) and the federal government’s much-ballyhooed “traveller bill of rights” enacted in 2019 has been shown to be largely toothless.
Mr. Alghabra was correct in describing the continued stranding of Sunwing passengers in southern-getaway locales as “unacceptable.” But it’s up to the federal government — which tends to acquiesce to industry demands (Sunwing reportedly received a $100-million federal bailout and a $350-million government loan during the pandemic) and pay lip-service to travellers’ concerns — to ensure Canadians are better served by the airports and airlines on which they rely.
Whether that means opening up Canadian airspace to international competition is a question that requires serious discussion. The status quo, like so many flights during this calamitous holiday season, simply won’t fly.