Sunwing ordered to compensate 16,255 passengers after delays during 2018 ice storm

The transportation watchdog said the carrier’s control centre ‘took a relatively hands-off approach’

A Sunwing Boeing 737-800 passenger plane prepares to land at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Wednesday, August 2, 2017. The Canadian Transportation Agency has ordered Sunwing Airlines Inc. to compensate more than 16,000 passengers and pay a $694,500 fine due to widespread service problems sparked by an ice storm that hit Toronto one year ago. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

A Sunwing Boeing 737-800 passenger plane prepares to land at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Wednesday, August 2, 2017. The Canadian Transportation Agency has ordered Sunwing Airlines Inc. to compensate more than 16,000 passengers and pay a $694,500 fine due to widespread service problems sparked by an ice storm that hit Toronto one year ago. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

The Canadian Transportation Agency has ordered Sunwing Airlines Inc. to compensate more than 16,000 passengers and pay a $694,500 fine due to widespread service problems sparked by an ice storm that hit Toronto one year ago.

The transportation watchdog said Monday that blizzards and high winds triggered problems on 96 Sunwing flights between April 14 and April 18, 2018, but that the low-cost carrier’s control centre “took a relatively hands-off approach” to managing the disruption “as the situation on the ground deteriorated and the backlog of flights grew.”

READ MORE: American Airlines extends Max-caused cancellations to June 5

The Toronto-based airline failed in many cases to provide meal vouchers, hotel accommodations, refund or cancellation options, or food and drinks during tarmac delays that, in one case, lasted more than six hours, the agency said.

On 15 flights, Sunwing also breached rules that require it to give passengers the opportunity to disembark after 90 minutes on the tarmac. Other flights were plagued with “systemic communication breakdowns” between the airline and its baggage agent, Swissport, and Sunwing failed to provide “consistent” updates on their flight status, the regulator said.

In contrast to other carriers, Sunwing did not cancel any of its flights in or out of Toronto and Montreal, a choice the agency blamed in part on the company’s “business model,” which focuses mainly on vacation destinations. Toronto’s Pearson airport saw about 600 flight cancellations in 48 hours.

“To my knowledge there was no such drama for other airlines,” said passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs. “It was rather nasty.”

Lukacs welcomed the agency’s findings, but said he was “disappointed by the slap-on-the-wrist penalty,” questioning why the airline was fined $2,500 per flight instead of per passenger for each type of violation.

Sunwing has apologized to the 16,255 affected passengers and said it has taken steps to improve its ground-handling, scheduling and communication during disruptions.

“While Sunwing’s charter business model differs from scheduled airline carriers in that we delay flights instead of cancelling them so that we can fulfil our obligation to pick up customers in destination, we have taken measures to lessen the customer impact by proactively delaying flights when disruptions are anticipated so that people can rest in the comfort of their home or hotel instead of the airport,” the company said in an email.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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