Duncan Dee is a former chief operating officer at Air Canada.
Over the past couple of weeks, air travellers have experienced what will likely be remembered as the most difficult Christmas travel peak in recent memory. For Canadians, it was a sad repeat of the challenges they faced last summer. While much of the chaos air travellers experienced this Christmas can be chalked up to bad weather, those travelling with Southwest Airlines and Sunwing, in particular, saw their plans upended by challenging recoveries in the days that followed.
Both airlines saw their operations turned upside down, leaving thousands of customers affected. But that is where the similarities end. The response of the respective airlines, as well as that of the senior-most transportation official in each country, couldn’t have been more different.
Southwest made the difficult but ultimately correct decision to reset their severely disrupted operations by cancelling upwards of two-thirds of their flights for much of the week following Dec. 23 to get aircraft and crew back in place. By Dec. 30, Southwest resumed near normal operations and started its recovery.
Sunwing, on the other hand, correctly, however belatedly, leased aircraft from other carriers to deal with their stranded customers but also was forced to cancel flights until February, including all its flights out of Saskatchewan. While the airline confirms that most stranded travellers have now returned to Canada, the longer-term cancellations make it clear that the airline marketed and sold flights which they did not have enough resources to operate. Where Southwest took the “short-term pain for long-term gain” approach, Sunwing decided that extending and spreading the pain well into the winter season made more sense.
While U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg appeared on virtually every major network news program, Canadian Transport Minister Omar Alghabra took to Twitter to voice his concern.
Against this backdrop of air travel chaos, several key lessons can be drawn. The first and most important lesson is to be pro-active.
Many of the issues faced by travellers were not only predictable, they were predicted. The problems travellers encountered during the summer peak became self-evident by spring yet nothing was done. With its sprawling bureaucracy, it should not be too much to expect Transport Canada to better monitor operational performance so that trends can be more easily identified and appropriately addressed.
Mr. Alghabra spent 2022 playing catch-up rather than leading. He should be the last person in Canada surprised by anything happening at airports during his watch, yet feigning surprise or being firmly in denial, was his and his department’s modus operandi. By being pro-active, he could have helped alleviate some of the long lines at airport security and customs that plagued airports last summer and could have been in a stronger position to encourage Sunwing to repatriate its stranded customers in a more timely fashion.
The second lesson is the need for reliable data. Unlike air transportation systems in comparable jurisdictions such as the United States or Europe, Canada’s is a data black hole. Basic data such as on-time performance or the length of airport security and customs lines are not only inaccessible but, where they exist, are unreliable or downright unbelievable. Ignorance in air transportation is not bliss. Most importantly, however, Mr. Alghabra should avoid using the data as spin, such as asserting that flights departing within one hour of schedule are actually “on time.” Data transparency would allow all participants in the air transportation system to make better decisions to improve operating performance.
The final lesson is accepting responsibility and embracing accountability. The Canadian government’s buck-passing and finger-pointing was both disappointing and damaging. Blaming air travellers should never be part of the Transport Minister’s tool kit nor should he ever use it as an excuse for his government’s failures. With the alphabet soup of federal players involved in air transportation, from CATSA to CBSA to Transport Canada to Nav Canada to, more recently, PHAC and Health Canada, the buck has to stop somewhere. That has to be with the Transport Minister.
The contrast between Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Alghabra couldn’t have been more stark during the Christmas travel meltdown. Mr. Buttigieg answered questions and went to great lengths to demonstrate that he was on top of the situation. Travellers stranded by Sunwing likely would have been reassured by similar leadership coming from Canada’s Transport Minister to ensure that their carrier’s responsibilities are fulfilled.
Taken together, these lessons offer Mr. Alghabra an opportunity to more effectively monitor performance to ensure that each player does their part to deliver on a more reliable air transportation system. Canadian travellers should be able to feel hopeful for better days ahead. In order for that to happen, Canada’s Transport Minister must enter 2023 determined not to permit a repeat of the past year’s mistakes.