Manitoban details Sunwing travel nightmare, blasts passenger rights laws

Stranded in Cuba with no indication when he’d be flying back to Manitoba on a Sunwing flight, Todd Holmes decided to find his own way home.

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Stranded in Cuba with no indication when he’d be flying back to Manitoba on a Sunwing flight, Todd Holmes decided to find his own way home.

After paying almost $1,600 for flights with a different airline, the Libau resident is seeking compensation from Sunwing — like hundreds of other customers — and hoping changes to Canada’s air passenger rights bring greater protection in the future.

“It was abundantly clear our Canadian laws are not there to protect us,” a frustrated Holmes said. “They’re there to provide compensation. There is no teeth to these laws, not at the time we need them.

“If there was, I would have been on the next flight (home).”

“It was abundantly clear our Canadian laws are not there to protect us… They’re there to provide compensation. There is no teeth to these laws.”–Todd Holmes

Holmes, his wife Brigit and daughter Jessica arrived at a resort in Varadero on Dec. 17 and were supposed to fly home Dec. 24.

The return flight kept getting pushed back, while Sunwing struggled to get on track after its operations were disrupted by winter storms in Canada.

Holmes said fellow travellers in his group received varying explanations, with some told the delay was due to weather and others due to a lack of staff.

They were informed the Dec. 24 flight left with passengers whose Dec. 23 return had been postponed, he said.

After being told they had seats on a Dec. 27 flight, the Holmeses waited in the resort’s lobby to board a bus to the airport.

However, a bus driver told them their names weren’t on the passenger manifest, so they couldn’t get on.

The bus instead collected Sunwing customers who arrived in Varadero from Winnipeg on Dec. 20 and were flying back as scheduled, said Holmes.

“We were seeing groups coming and going, but we were still there,” he said.

After failing to get answers from a Sunwing rep, Holmes, 54, said he sent a plea to his travel agent, who later informed him his family was supposed to be on the Dec. 27 flight.

“It was quite obvious there was a lack of information between (Sunwing staff in) Cuba and Canada,” he said. “At no time did I receive any electronic correspondence from Sunwing.”

Holmes said a passenger on the Dec. 27 flight sent a picture of empty seats.

At that time, Sunwing was sending recovery flights to Mexico and the Caribbean, while stranded customers scrambled to get home amid one of the busiest travel seasons of the year.

After failing to get answers, Holmes booked flights with a different airline Dec. 28. The family flew to Winnipeg via Toronto, arriving Dec. 30.

He said he submitted a compensation claim over the weekend through Sunwing’s website, which indicated he is eligible for $1,500 toward the cost of the flight he booked.

He is also exploring options through his travel insurance provider.

Holmes, who runs a family-owned auto repair shop, said he lost a week’s worth of wages and incurred other costs, including airport parking fees and meals during the journey home.

He has no plans to fly with Sunwing again under its current management.

Holmes recommends travellers in similar situations keep emails and text messages, and record details of conversations in case evidence is needed in small claims court or for a class action lawsuit.

He said he contacted the office of James Bezan, the Conservative member of Parliament for Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman, to discuss concerns about the situation and Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations.

Introduced in 2019, the rules require airlines to financially compensate passengers when a flight is cancelled or delayed by more than three hours for a reason within the carrier’s control.

Airlines must provide a rebooking — even for reasons outside their control — within 48 hours of the original departure time.

If it doesn’t, the carrier must provide a refund or rebooking at the passenger’s choice.

If an airline fails to meet its obligations, passengers can file a complaint and pursue compensation through the Canadian Transportation Agency.

The quasi-judicial tribunal and regulator, which can fine airlines for failing to comply with the rules, is dealing with a backlog of more than 33,000 complaints. Most pre-date the recent disruption.

Agency spokeswoman Martine Maltais said it usually takes more than 18 months for a case to be reviewed.

She said the agency is looking at ways to reduce the backlog.

Gabor Lukacs, the Halifax-based president of the advocacy group Air Passenger Rights, is encouraging Sunwing customers to consider small claims court if they believe the airline wrongfully dismissed a claim related to the holiday season disruption.

“(Sunwing) is blaming it on weather, but it was poor organization and operation arrangements,” said Lukacs.

“(Sunwing) is blaming it on weather, but it was poor organization and operation arrangements.”–Gabor Lukacs

He said the regulations failed a major test and need to be tightened.

They should be brought in line with European Union rules, which, he said, put the burden of proof on airlines and don’t require a “mountain” of evidence from passengers.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said last week Ottawa plans to strengthen its rules.

“The delays Canadians experienced over the holidays were unacceptable, and Canadians deserve better,” Nadine Ramadan, a spokeswoman for the transport minister, wrote in an email.

Legislation to strengthen the rules could be introduced in the spring.

“These changes will help increase efficiency and put the onus on airlines to reimburse passengers,” Ramadan wrote. “All options are on the table to ensure that what happened over the holidays does not happen again.”

Wendy Paradis, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, based in Mississauga, Ont., recommends navigating the Canadian Transportation Agency process if an airline refuses a claim.

She said the recent disruption exposed shortfalls of passenger protection regulations, a lack of understanding about the rules and the importance of taking out travel insurance.

“This is really our first Christmas peak season where they’re really being challenged,” said Paradis.

Sunwing did not respond to a request for comment.

Twitter: @chriskitching

Chris Kitching

As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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