As some Sunwing passengers begin to arrive home following a holiday marred with travel chaos, many may be looking for recourse.
Sunwing has said it planned to have most of its customers back home by Monday, after a major winter storm over Christmas disrupted its operations. Hundreds of passengers in sunny destinations were stranded as a result.
Sunwing has had “very poor operational planning,” throughout the crisis, said Gábor Lukács, president of advocacy organization Air Passenger Rights. Passengers have rights under Canadian and international laws, which can be used if seeking recourse, he added.
“We do understand that sometimes bad weather happens, but we have not seen such a meltdown of this magnitude with other airlines,” Lukács told Global News.
“That is Sunwing’s own special problem.”
What’s been going on with Sunwing?
As a major winter storm played out across Canada, airlines were warning of potential impacts as a result. But shortly after, stories of Sunwing travellers stranded in tropical destinations began to emerge.
Some Canadians described being shuffled between hotels in Mexico, sometimes arriving to find there were no rooms booked for them, saying Sunwing officials passed along inaccurate and incomplete information about when they might be able to head home.
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Transport minister Omar Alghabra called the chaos “unacceptable” on Dec. 28. Federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre on Dec. 30 pointed the finger at the federal government, saying Ottawa should be doing more to hold airlines accountable for “breaking their word” to passengers and leaving them stranded.
Sunwing also provoked a response from Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, who said the airline’s decision to suspend its flights from the Saskatoon and Regina airports for a month was irresponsible. Sunwing on Dec. 29 said it was immediately cancelling its operations through Feb. 3 at Saskatchewan’s two international airports due to extenuating circumstances. Sunwing added customers with cancelled southbound flights would receive a full refund, and those who were trying to return home would receive information soon.
In a series of updates on its website, Sunwing said in its latest on Dec. 30 that it hoped most, “if not all,” of its delayed customers would be back home by Monday. Sunwing did not respond to Global News’ request for comment by publication time.
Passengers have rights under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR) and the Montreal Convention, an international treaty enforced by the Canadian government since 2003, that they can turn to for recourse, said Lukács.
How should airlines handle these situations?
When a flight is cancelled or substantially delayed, the airline is required under the APPR to provide a passenger with alternate transportation. Regarding international travel, the airline is required to buy or pay for the passenger’s alternate transportation on other carriers, even if it is a small carrier, Lukács said.
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Sunwing said on Dec. 30 it had planned 43 recovery flights for departure up to and including Jan. 2, 34 of which were completed by end of day Friday. One of those flights was on the New England Patriots’ team plane. The NFL team’s jet was sent by Sunwing to bring dozens of Quebec families home.
Passengers who are currently still affected, or who have been affected by these delays and cancellations can seek compensation from Sunwing, Lukács said.
Under the APPR, there are minimum levels of compensation airlines are required to pay during delays or cancellations that are in their control and are not related to safety. For example, passengers on “large airlines” who were delayed for more than nine hours are eligible for $1,000, whereas passengers on “small airlines” can receive $500 for a nine-hour-or-longer delay. The APPR defines Sunwing as a small airline.
Under the Montreal Convention, passengers can seek up to $9,700 for any out-of-pocket expenses incurred during the length of delay. Furthermore, passengers can seek compensation of up to $2,300 under the Montreal Convention for any lost or damaged baggage, Lukács added.
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Some passengers took to social media with complaints over what Sunwing was telling them they would be compensated for regarding expenses related to missing luggage.
Multiple passengers said Sunwing it would compensate them up to $600 for replacing items in luggage that did not arrive at their destinations. Sunwing has since “revised” that amount to $2,000.
“The fact that Sunwing dares to make this type of statement and is not concerned that it would be facing some significant backlash, some legal consequences. That is in and of itself profoundly troubling,” Lukács said.
How can passengers go about getting compensation?
According to the APPR, a passenger has one year to make a compensation claim with the airline that operated the disrupted flight. The airline then has 30 days to respond by issuing a payment or indicating why it believes compensation is not owed.
Airlines have to offer passengers the compensation in monetary form, the APPR states. They can also offer passengers alternative forms of compensation like vouchers or rebates, but passengers have the right to select what they prefer.
Also, alternative forms of compensation that are offered must be of higher value than the monetary compensation that is required, and can never expire, the APPR adds.
For damaged baggage, the claim must be submitted within seven days after the passenger receives the baggage. For potentially lost baggage, the claim must be submitted within 21 days after the day it was supposed to arrive, the APPR states. The regulations also require airlines to reimburse passengers for any baggage fees paid if their baggage was damaged or lost.
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If passengers plan on filing a claim, it’s important they provide receipts, especially if any out-of-pocket expenses occurred, Lukács said. If Sunwing denies their request, there are other options.
“Take Sunwing to small claims court,” he said.
“We have given a template in our on our website with respect to baggage. If there are many passengers with the same issue, team up with other passengers.”
At the end of the day, passengers pay “good money” for their trips and expect to get those services, Lukács added.
“Sunwing cannot just walk away from the contract,” he said.
— With files from The Canadian Press