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Luggage bags are amassed in the bag claim area at Toronto Pearson International Airport, as a major winter storm disrupts flights in and out of the airport, in Toronto, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Federal politicians grilled executives of Canadian airlines and airports Thursday regarding the holiday travel disruptions, calling the wave of cancelled and delayed flights a “disaster” that ruined winter getaway plans and kept families apart at Christmas.

Members of the transport committee called company representatives to a meeting to explain why so many travellers endured long delays, cancellations and lost luggage over the Christmas break. Hundreds of Sunwing Airlines customers were stranded in resorts for days with little or no communications from the carrier.

“This holiday season was a complete disaster for my constituents and Canadians across the country,” said Calgary MP George Chahal.

The airlines said snow and cold weather in much of the country grounded planes and slowed the movement of crews, causing a cascade effect of late and cancelled flights across their networks. Executives from WestJet Airlines, Air Canada and Sunwing apologized to affected customers and said they were complying with the regulations that cover refunds and compensation.

“We failed to deliver to the level that we had expected and that Canadians had expected from us over this holiday season,” said Sunwing president Len Corrado.

The winter break was a closely watched test for airlines and airports after the congestion that marked the summer travel season of 2022. A surge of travellers eager to visit family and friends for the first time since the pandemic began in March, 2020, ran into poorly staffed airlines, airports and government agencies that screen passengers.

“I would argue that [Christmas] was even worse,” B.C. MP Mark Strahl said.

Quebec MP Julie Vignola said the meeting was not held to complain about the winter weather but to question the airline representatives about the poor communications and treatment customers received.

Sunwing was singled out for its widespread failure to bring customers home from resorts.

Under questioning, Mr. Corrado said the airline had trouble recovering from the storm because of a shortage of pilots and trouble moving crews and planes to various airports. In early December the government rejected Sunwing’s application to hire 63 pilots as temporary foreign workers.

Mr. Corrado also pointed to de-icing fluid shortages in Vancouver, baggage-conveyor problems in Toronto and the winter weather across Canada. “We know we could have done better,” he said.

Hundreds of Sunwing passengers were stranded for days in sun destinations and left to scramble for accommodations, meals and flights home.

The airline has received some 7,000 complaints from holiday customers seeking refunds and/or compensation. Mr. Corrado said Sunwing will comply with the rules on passenger rights, adding that the airline is committed to improving the way it informs customers of the status of their flights.

However, MPs noted that passenger rights rules do not require airlines to compensate passengers when flight problems are safety-related and not in the airlines’ control. They questioned why airlines are not proactively refunding and compensating customers rather than requiring them to take their disputes to the Canadian Transportation Agency. MP Taylor Bachrach noted the regulator has a backlog of 33,000 complaints and takes 18 months to resolve cases.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra called the problems experienced by travellers “unacceptable.”

“Canadians deserve answers about what happened,” he said in afternoon testimony to the committee, adding that travellers expect to be kept informed of flight delays and compensated according to the regulations when their plans are cancelled.

He said the government is working on tougher rules. Too often passengers are told by airlines that they are not entitled to compensation when they really are, he said, triggering a flood of complaints to the regulator.

Among the considerations are larger fines for airlines and simpler rules on how complaints are handled by the CTA. The CTA currently can levy penalties of as much as $25,000 per passenger. “We are looking at almost every aspect of the regulations,” he said.

In heated questioning, Conservative MPs asked Mr. Alghabra why he has not spoken to the heads of the airports during or since the travel crisis, and why he waited until Jan. 5 to speak with Sunwing’s president.

“You waited until the crisis had passed before you picked up the phone. Between Christmas and New Year’s we needed to see action from you and we didn’t see it,” said Mr. Strahl said. “You were nowhere for over two weeks.”

Why did you not communicate with the airports?” asked Quebec MP Luc Berthold. “This is what Canadians expect from their minister.”

Mr. Alghabra responded that his office was in regular contact with the industry and he received briefings from his staff. Mr. Alghabra did not address questions on how he spent the holidays; The Globe has reported he was out of the country until Dec. 27 after visits t the Middle East and Europe.

B.C. MP Taylor Bachrach said the passenger rights rules that Mr. Alghabra created are lax and have loopholes “you could fly a 747 through.” He said the Transport Minister was not using his authority to direct the CTA to improve the way they handle customers.

“The big airlines are acting this way because you let them,” Mr. Bachrach said.