Chaos at airports: Ottawa says it wants to strengthen traveler protection

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Chaos in airports: Ottawa says it wants to strengthen traveler protection

Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra wants to strengthen passenger protection and give more resources to the Canadian Transportation Agency. (Archives)

Appearing before the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities on Thursday afternoon, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra expressed his anger and frustration with the situation that has prevailed in the airports across the country as well as VIA Rail just days before Christmas, resulting in a chaotic and stressful time for thousands of travellers. “Never again,” he promised.

He said he wanted travelers to be better protected and for the burden of proof to rest on the shoulders of carriers, unlike the current situation, where it is up to consumers to prove fault.

Minister Alghabra, who wants to increase resources for the agency, hopes to introduce legislation in the coming months and plans to announce other changes to traveler protections.

The elected official assured that the government was not trying to shirk, that it assumed its responsibilities and that the same should be done for the carriers.

Canadians deserve answers about what happened over the holiday season, he said. They also have the right to be informed of alternatives [if their travel plans change].

it never happens again.

— Omar Alghabra, Minister of Transport

Mr. Alghabra defended his handling of the crisis, claiming to have been informed of developments daily, sometimes even hourly. The Minister was asked why he waited until January 5 to speak to carriers or airport management, when, as of December 19, we knew that the weather conditions were going to be difficult in the following days.

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The weather bomb that hit the country in December forced the cancellation of thousands of flights across the country.

The ensuing chaos at major airports around the Canada has forced passengers to sleep on the ground in some airports, on an armchair in a hotel lobby or to wait for seven hours on board an aircraft stuck on the tarmac, without eating or drinking.

< p class="e-p">The law allows Cabinet to issue orders in serious situations, said Conservative Party MP Melissa Lantsman.

My office has been in contact with Sunwing, the Liberal minister said, indicating that he also had discussions with VIA Rail during the events leading up to this special committee meeting.

It must be said that the frustration of federal elected officials was palpable during the hearings of the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, which heard Thursday morning the leaders of Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing on their management of canceled flights.

A must for this public mea culpa, the bosses of the air carriers first of all apologized to travelers affected by the postponement or cancellation of flights during their end-of-year holidays . They also thanked their employees, many of whom returned to work in the face of the urgency of the situation, choosing to work rather than spend time with their families.

Thousands of flights were delayed or canceled due to uncertain weather conditions just days before Christmas. (Archives)

Sunwing President Len Corrado, who was particularly bombarded with questions, admitted on a few occasions that he could not answer them since he did not have his meeting notes or did not have all the details relating to the situation described by the member. He explained, among other explanations, that his company had a solid plan for this very busy time of year, but that elements over which he had no control came to put sand in the gears. /p>

Mr. Corrado cited in particular Sunwing's request to temporarily hire about 60 foreign pilots which was refused at the last minute. A few years ago, a similar request was granted, he said. This lack of pilots has increased the pressure on all other activities of the company.

The seriousness of your apology will be judged by the measures you take in the future, said one of the chosen ones.

Asked what changes have been made since these disruptive events, the president of Sunwing mentioned that the schedules have been modified to give the company more flexibility, allowing it to react more quickly to the situation. unexpected, and that communication tools have been improved. The weakness of the latter has also been denounced by several elected officials, as has the need to improve customer service in crisis situations.

Lack of de-icing fluid at some airports, baggage system failures and labor issues have contributed to worsening an already complex situation, carriers and airport operators have argued.

At Pearson Airport, for example, nearly 55,000 pieces of luggage could not reach their owners, said Deborah Flint, president of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.

< p class="e-p">It is our employees who have to deal with disgruntled passengers, denounced the president and CEO of Aéroports de Montréal (ADM), Philippe Rainville, adding that carriers must improve communication with their customers by providing them with more accurate wait times so they can wait quietly at home and not at the airport if their flights are delayed.

“We try to accommodate requests as best we can, just like airline employees. It's hard on everyone. »

— Philippe Rainville, CEO of Aéroports de Montréal

The Air Travel Complaint Handling Rules have been discussed extensively before the Standing Committee. Conservative Party MP Leslyn Lewis put the figure at 7,000 complaints from aggrieved travellers.

We have rights for passengers in Canada, Minister Alghabra said of the canceled flights. These are the operators who have not respected the rules.

As of January 4, according to data from the Canadian Transportation Agency, more than 33,000 complaints were pending, a situation denounced by parliamentarians during the committee's work.

We expect a large number of complaints, mentioned France Pégeot, president of the OTC, recalling that travelers must first send a request to their carrier within 30 days of the event to which they are seeking reimbursement or compensation.

An Air Canada representative expressed support for improving the complaints handling system, provided however to involve all stakeholders, not just air carriers, as is currently the case.

Experts and parliamentarians have also publicly stated that the system is insufficient. Several also denounced the delays in the processing of complaints made by consumers against airlines under this regulation.

Airport operators in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal have spoken of the need to invest in their infrastructure. The Vancouver Airport Authority has already submitted a request to Ottawa, said Tamara Vrooman, president and CEO of the Vancouver Airport Authority, in order to x27;Improving facilities' capabilities in the face of climate change and increasing digital development. Pearson airport management is aiming to improve the overall passenger experience.

Montreal is where the needs seem to be greatest . Philippe Rainville, who admitted to being worried about next summer, spoke of the need to invest in transport infrastructure, air capacity and parking space needs.

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“We have to make plans for the future […] We're going to need [financial] help.” »

— Philippe Rainville, CEO of Aéroports de Montréal

As well as Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing, the big bosses said they had contacts with Minister Alghabra's office in the days following the storm.

With information from La Presse canadienne

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