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Luggage bags are amassed in the bag claim area at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Dec. 24, 2022.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Jules Oille arrived in Puerto Vallarta on Jan. 14. His suitcase did not.

So Mr. Oille found himself in a faraway place on a long-awaited vacation with only the clothes on his back and a credit card.

“No bags. Nothing,” he said.

His experience will sound familiar to countless travellers since the Christmas break, when airlines cancelled thousands of flights amid snowstorms and a rush of vacationers. The chaos meant ruined holidays and lost luggage. Airlines and airports blamed the problems on snow and cold, saying planes held on the tarmac in bad weather were unable to make connections or transport crews to their assignments.

Passengers complained of long waits on planes waiting to unload or of arriving at an airport only to find their flight had been scrubbed. Row upon row of stray suitcases spilled from airport baggage halls into unsecured rooms and, in the case of Toronto Pearson, a nearby convention centre.

How did Pearson airport’s delays get so bad? Inside the patchwork system that failed to stop the crisis

The widespread problems in Canadian air travel have highlighted the shortcomings in the rules that govern how airlines treat passengers. Although airlines can be required to rebook, refund or compensate passengers, consumers are often forced to file a complaint with the regulator of airline customer affairs, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), which has a backlog of about 33,000 complaints and takes more than a year to handle each grievance.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has said he will draft tougher rules in the coming months. Peter Schiefke, the chairman of a government committee on transportation, oversaw January hearings on the way airlines and Via Rail treated customers over the winter holidays, part of a larger study on passenger rights. Mr. Schiefke, a Liberal MP from Quebec, said he will send a report with recommendations to the House of Commons likely by the second week of March.

Mr. Oille said the airline he flew, Swoop, offered no help or explanation to him or the others on the plane who arrived in Mexico without their luggage.

“The first day I’m like, ‘I gotta go to Walmart.’ That’s what you fantasize about doing, going to [Puerto Vallarta] and going to Walmart,” Mr. Oille said. “I had to buy basically a grand worth of stuff, including the suitcase.”

His suitcase was eventually delivered by courier to his Toronto office weeks later. Before that, the airline directed him to search two unsecured rooms at Pearson airport, where several suitcases were piled. He showed The Globe and Mail a video he made of the rooms, one of which appeared to be an empty shop in the terminal. “You can just walk off the street and steal the stuff. It’s unsupervised,” he said.

He said Swoop told him it would review his claim for the amount he spent replacing his belongings and will refund his baggage check-in fee of about $60.

Julia Brunet, a Swoop spokeswoman, said bags can miss flights for “several reasons,” including security screening, sorting errors and high volumes of luggage. “We understand how disruptive baggage delays can be for travellers and we sincerely apologize when travel doesn’t go according to plan,” she said.

The CTA could not provide data on baggage complaints specifically for the holiday period but said it received 3,259 complaints about lost or delayed baggage between April 1, 2022, and Jan. 25, 2023. This number is expected to rise, given the 30-day period airlines have to reply.

Virginia Watson-Rouslin of North Saanich, B.C., and her husband planned to spend five nights in New York over Christmas, buying tickets for the Radio City Rockettes, a play and an art exhibit and making dinner reservations.

“We love New York,” she said. “It’s a magical city.”

Instead, they spent five nights in a Mississauga hotel after their Air Canada flight to New York from Toronto was cancelled on Dec. 22.

Air Canada told her via e-mail that the plane’s crew had reached their maximum duty hours. She was unable to reach Air Canada by phone to book another flight and gave up after waiting in line for more than an hour at a ticket counter on one bad knee and two bad feet. Her travel agent back home had no luck, either. “We just couldn’t get out,” she said. “I said, ‘I think we’re going to be staying in Mississauga for Christmas.’ And that’s what we did.”

She plans to seek $5,562 in reimbursement from Air Canada for the Mississauga and New York hotel bills. That does not include the hundreds she spent on tickets for shows they never got to see.

Her husband’s suitcase somehow made it to New York’s LaGuardia Airport and back, while hers never left Toronto.

Their flight home to Victoria on Dec. 27 was cancelled, too, but they caught a plane home the next day after another night in another hotel. Although they could not sit together on the plane, Ms. Watson-Rouslin looked back at her husband and smiled as the plane left the ground. “I remember waving my arm, saying, ‘We’re going home.’”

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