Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says a decision by Sunwing Vacations to suspend its flights from the Saskatoon and Regina airports for a month is irresponsible.
The airline announced Thursday it was immediately cancelling its operations through Feb. 3 at Saskatchewan’s two international airports due to extenuating circumstances. It said customers with cancelled southbound flights would receive a full refund and those who were trying to return home would receive information soon.
“This is a very irresponsible decision by Sunwing for everyone who has booked a vacation, particularly those who are currently at their destination and are uncertain how and when they will get home,” Moe said in a statement Friday.
“While airlines and air travel are regulated by the federal government, Saskatchewan’s Transportation Minister Jeremy Cockrill has been in contact with Sunwing and with federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra asking for a detailed plan of how and when passengers who travelled from Saskatchewan will get back, which is the immediate priority.
“In the days ahead, we expect Sunwing to appropriately compensate everyone who did not receive the service they purchased.”
Sunwing said in a statement Friday that it had planned to supplement seasonal demand for travel from Saskatoon and Regina with the assistance of temporary foreign pilots for the winter months.
“When foreign pilot deployment was not agreed to, we brought in sub-services to sustain our operations, however, the conditions and schedule have proven too significant,” the airline said.
“We have attempted to reposition Sunwing aircraft to support but have been unable to do so as a result of flight delays and cancellations brought on by recent weather disruptions, and heavy demand over the peak holiday period.
“We recognize that, despite our best efforts, we have failed to deliver on our customers’ expectations, and we deeply apologize for not meeting the standards of service our Saskatoon and Regina customers rightfully expect.”
The airline is still scrambling to bring hundreds of passengers home from destinations including Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, after winter storms disrupted its operations over the holidays.
“Our teams continue to work through the backlogged flights in order to return our remaining customers in destination home as soon as possible, and we anticipate that most, if not all, delayed customers should return home by Jan. 2,” Sunwing said in a statement earlier Friday.
The airline said it has planned 43 recovery flights with 34 to be completed by the end of the day.
John Gradek, an aviation management lecturer at McGill University in Montreal, called the situation a “debacle” that signals a need for more government regulation of the airline industry.
Though many carriers had to cancel flights as storms, extreme cold and freezing rain gripped much of Canada in the days before Christmas, Sunwing in particular had a hard time recovering. That’s because it’s a much smaller airline, with fewer flights in and out of its destinations, Gradek said in an interview.
A carrier like WestJet or Air Canada would have several flights a day going back and forth, and therefore have more opportunity to transport passengers left in limbo by a cancellation. But Sunwing may only fly back and forth a few times a week, he said, and its main option to rescue passengers is to charter planes from other operators.
Gradek said, however, that Christmas is peak travel time, and there aren’t many empty planes waiting to be chartered.
“Mother Nature has a way of taking the biggest players in the field and wrestling them to the ground,” he said. “And this is exactly what happened.”
It could get worse for Sunwing passengers before it gets better, added Gradek. Early January is also a busy travel time and, if the weather deteriorates and forces cancellations, Sunwing could be dealing with those passengers on top of the backlog from before Christmas.
Gradek noted that the federal transport minister met with members of the air transport sector last month for a post-mortem after a summer of chaos at Canadian airports.
“He basically promised Canadians in November that we will not have a repeat performance of the summer during Christmas,” Gradek said. “And lo and behold, guess what? We’re there, and even worse.”
He said it’s time for Ottawa to look at how it can ensure airline carriers can actually deliver on the schedules they promise and sell to the public.
Valerie Glazer, a spokesperson for the federal transport minister’s office, said in a statement that the government understands delays and cancellations are frustrating for travellers during the holiday season.
“Transport Canada and our office are in contact with airlines and airports to ensure they have what they need to keep passengers safe,” she said. “The safety of passengers and crews is our top priority.”
Glazer added that the Sunwing situation is unacceptable and notes the federal government has been in contact with the airline.
“Our government will continue to monitor this situation closely to ensure that all passengers are accommodated,” said the statement.
Federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre said it’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s job to bring back stability and service to the airline sector.
“He’s blaming the snow right now,” Poilievre said Friday. “But there was no snow in the summer and there was chaos at our airports at that time. So what was the excuse, then? Well, he claimed that it was COVID. Well, I mean, it seems like Justin Trudeau is better at coming up with excuses than he is coming up with solutions.”
The solution, he said, is to have a federal transportation agency that holds airlines accountable.