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Inquiry finds Sunwing violated regulations during April ice storm

Last Updated Jan 24, 2019 at 5:56 pm EDT

Sunwing Airlines passengers facing lengthy flight delays wait in a line at Toronto's Pearson International Airport on April 16, 2018. CITYNEWS/Tony Fera

A preliminary Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) inquiry into lengthy flight delays, cancellations and baggage problems that affected hundreds of Sunwing passengers last April has found the airline violated numerous regulations.

The CTA inquiry initially looked into incidents between April 14 and 18, 2018, at Toronto Pearson International Airport during a spring ice storm. It was later expanded to include disruptions on Sunwing flights at Montréal-Trudeau Airport during the same time frame.

The CTA found 77 Sunwing flights were delayed by more than four hours, and 43 flights were delayed by more than eight hours. Not all passengers were compensated for the delays.

“For a delay that exceeds four hours, Sunwing’s tariff states that the carrier will provide the passengers with a meal voucher,” the CTA wrote. “The Inquiry Officer’s report indicates that some, but not all, passengers received meal vouchers.

“For a delay of more than eight hours that includes an overnight stay, Sunwing’s Scheduled International Tariff states that the carrier will pay for an overnight hotel stay and airport transfers for passengers who did not start their travel at that airport … the Inquiry Officer’s report indicates that some individuals were offered hotels … but that hotels were not consistently offered to all passengers.”

The CTA also found Sunwing failed to properly communicate with passengers about delays, schedule changes and the status of lost luggage. It also said Sunwing didn’t inform all passengers of the option of disembarking from an aircraft if a delay exceeds 90 minutes and it is safe and practical to do so.

“The Agency finds that in 14 of the 15 flights, passengers were not provided the opportunity to disembark,” the report said.

Sunwing has until Feb. 5 to respond to the report.

“We can confirm that the CTA has released their report to us and provided us time to review and produce documentation to refute any of their findings before the document is considered finalized,” a Sunwing spokesperson told CityNews Thursday. “Once finalized we will provide our official response on the matter to the CTA and our media partners.”

Air travel was affected by a severe ice storm that hit Ontario and Quebec during the four days the inquiry covers, but the CTA said the inclement weather doesn’t fully absolve Sunwing.

“Sunwing correctly argues that it cannot be held accountable for such extraordinary weather events,” the CTA wrote. “It is, however, accountable for the way it deals with those events and, specifically, for whether it respects the provisions set out in its own tariffs regarding passengers’ entitlements in relation to flight delays; tarmac delays; and lost, damaged or delayed baggage.”

The CTA said Sunwing’s decision to attempt to maintain its normal schedule rather than cancel or reschedule some flights due to the weather exacerbated the problems.

“Whatever its motivation, this operational decision clearly contributed to domino effects across Sunwing’s flights and, in any event, in no way relieves Sunwing of its responsibility to fulfill its tariff obligations,” it said.

Passengers reported being stuck in planes on the tarmac and not being served drinks or snacks. Other flights were delayed by as long as 29 hours.

Some said they had to wait days for their luggage and complained that communication from the airline was limited.

Sunwing apologized at the time and placed some of the blame on Swissport, its baggage handling contractor.

The CTA acknowledged Swissport’s service “was inadequate, in part due to labour issues,” but added Sunwing is ultimately responsible.

“The carrier’s own tariff holds the carrier responsible for the actions of its agents,” it said. “Non-performance by a carrier’s agent does not excuse a carrier from its failure to satisfy the obligations established in its tariff.”