“Very, very sorry”: Airline execs apologize after being grilled for holiday travel mismanagement

Jan 12 2023, 6:07 pm

Canadian airline execs are being grilled by the government about the dismal customer service provided during the holidays, causing flight delays and cancellations, and leaving many travellers stranded in other countries.

On Thursday, top Sunwing, WestJet, and Air Canada executives were questioned by the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities (TRAN).

The panel included several members of parliament, who complained that the people in the constituencies were impacted severely by the mismanagement, and provided specific examples of travellers calling for help on social media to illustrate their point.

The airlines apologized to customers for the damper their service put on Canadians’ holiday plans but maintained that the weather was out of their control and that the government should have helped improve aviation infrastructure.

“We operated nearly 1,000 daily flights on average,” said Air Canada VP Kevin O’Connor. “We did this despite the extreme weather. How extreme? In Vancouver four-foot icicles formed on aircraft and bridges, making it almost impossible to move customers. In Calgary, at one point it got so cold the icy fluid was not able to be used to remove contamination.”

O’Connor went on to complain about the government’s lack of help and investment in improving aviation infrastructure to help curb weather-related disruptions.

Len Corrado, president of Sunwing Airlines, chimed in as well. “Let me begin by apologizing that we failed to deliver to the level that we had expected and that Canadians had expected from us over this holiday season,” he said. “We built a robust plan to meet the high demand for travel to some destinations. While many of our customers enjoy their holidays with minimal disruption, we had some failures and execution for which we’re very, very sorry.”

He further noted that, unlike traditional airlines, Sunwing does not have the flexibility on its network to adjust its schedule and shift passenger itineraries.

“We almost always have customers waiting in a southern destination with a very fixed timeline to return to Canada. Well, many of these factors are out of our control. I want to be clear with Canadians that our team immediately jumped into action to try to make things right for our customers.”

Scott Wilson, VP of Flight Operations at WestJet, apologized to customers and said this was “the most significant weather-induced disruption” he had ever seen in his 20 years at WestJet.

VP of External Affairs at WestJet Airlines Andrew Gibbons said that the airline offered a full refund for anyone who wanted to cancel their travel in advance, as well as three nights of hotels at WestJet’s expense for any guests stranded mid-journey in a connecting city.

He added that there was a need for the government to address “the most glaring gap in consumer protection” in Canada: “Your delay or cancel can be caused by many groups, yet only airlines have regulations governing our activities. We believe this committee should demand equal policies for any entity that provides a service that can result in a delay or cancel.”

The execs were asked whether they prepared for holiday travel in advance, since bad weather is usually expected in the winter, and if they collaborated with Transport Canada and Minister of Transportation Omar Alghabra. They said they had been in touch with the federal transportation body throughout the holiday season.

The airlines’ claims about bearing the brunt of the chaos to ensure customers were fairly comfortable and compensated directly clashed with the hundreds of horrifying stories surfacing on social media during the holidays.

Some MPs brought up how many travellers were left stranded in other countries with little to no communication from the airlines about what they should do next. Some had to check in and check out of hotels daily and spend money out of pocket to arrange flights to head back home.

You do not control the weather — I know a lot of us wish we could at times, but it’s not the case,” asserted Quebec MP Julie Vignola after many of the execs spent most of their speaking time blaming the weather. “The issue is really about customer service.”

WestJet was also called out for booking travel and taking money from Canadians when it didn’t have pilots lined up for the flights it was selling.

Liberal MP Annie Koutrakis asked Sunwing’s Corrado what a “reasonable amount of time” was to ask its clients to remain on standby in hotel lobbies or airports while the company figures out how to get them to their destination. “I’m curious to know if you have a policy on this and if so, what is it?”

“Obviously, everybody knows that it’s never the intention that passengers receive services less than par,” rebutted Koutrakis. “But do you have a policy in that regard?”

WestJet and Air Canada were also asked the same question. All three airlines said there was no acceptable time for their guests to be stranded anywhere but refused to outline a specific policy, despite being asked several times.

Imaan SheikhImaan Sheikh

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