Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said at the opening of a Commons committee on Jan. 12 that his government was not “hiding” and that it would assume its responsibilities regarding the travel chaos that occurred over the holidays, but he mostly put the blame on the weather and the industry.
“What do you want me to be responsible for? The weather or Sunwing’s bad decisions?” Alghabra shot back at Conservative MP Luc Berthold.
Berthold had asked Alghabra where he was between Dec. 23 and Jan. 5 while “Canadians were sleeping on airport floors.”
“You did not consider that it was severe enough for you, Mr. Minister, to intervene personally? You could have demonstrated leadership, you could have picked up the phone and called the airline companies, called the airports,” Berthold said.
The committee heard that Alghabra had not been directly in touch with the airlines during the chaos that saw thousands of flights cancelled and passengers stranded abroad or inside airplanes sitting on the tarmac for extended time.
It’s only on Jan. 5 that Alghabra would have talked directly to Sunwing.
The minister defended his record and said he had been involved throughout, and that his office had been in touch with airlines and airports daily.
“I’ve also issued public statements expressing my frustration of what was happening, and none of the airlines, including Sunwing, were clueless as to my feelings and my expectations,” he said.
Alghabra also pushed back on assertions that the travel chaos experienced last summer, which saw Canadian airports being ranked worst in the world, was in any way related to what recently transpired.
“We didn’t see the long queues that we saw last summer at CATSA [Canadian Air Transport Security Authority] and CBSA [Canada Border Services Agency] screening lines,” he said.
NDP MP Taylor Bachrach accused the government of treating the airlines with “kids’ gloves” and letting them “walk over any semblance of passenger rights in this country.”
Alghabra praised his government’s effort for passing legislation that defends passengers’ rights and said upholding these rights was the responsibility of the airlines.
“I would argue that it’s also the government’s responsibility to uphold passenger rights, and unfortunately, the air passenger protection regime that you’ve created has massive loopholes in it, you could fly a 747 through these things,” Bachrach replied.
Bachrach had asked Sunwing President Len Corrado during the morning meeting about emails received by the company’s customers telling them they would not be compensated for their troubles.
Corrado said some travellers would not be compensated if the flight had been adjudicated outside the carrier’s control.
The manner in which complaints will be handled by the airlines in the coming weeks will test the current system, which is already severely backlogged.
The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) that deals with disputes between passengers and airlines has 33,000 cases to process.
Sunwing executive Andrew Dawson had told the committee earlier that day that the company had so far received 7,000 complaints related to holiday travel.
Alghabra said he received a promise from Sunwing that it would proactively compensate its customers to avoid them having to file a complaint with the CTA, in possible contradiction to what Corrado had told the committee earlier.
While the minister commended his government’s work to defend the rights of passengers, he identified three areas of improvement to speed up the CTA complaint process.
Alghabra said that red tape could be reduced, the rules could be clarified for the airlines to reduce the number of complaints ending up with the CTA, and the CTA should be provided with more resources.
He also said legislative changes could be brought if necessary to strengthen the rules.
Airlines told the committee earlier that they would support a review of the legislation, but to include shared responsibility for delays and cancellations.
“We do not believe the priority right now should be additional penalties on the only group that has any accountability,” said Andrew Gibbons, vice-president of WestJet.