Sunwing travel chaos not due to staffing, union says: ‘Pilots are available to fly’ – National

The chaos created for travellers with Sunwing Vacations by widespread flight cancellations over the past week has prompted plenty of finger pointing, but the union representing the airline’s pilots says staffing issues aren’t to blame.

Sunwing on Thursday pointed to its proposed plan to add dozens of temporary foreign pilots to its workforce ahead of the busy holiday travel season as one reason it was forced to suddenly suspend all operations at Saskatchewan’s two international airports until early February. The move was opposed by the union and was ultimately scrapped in early December.

But Bruce Snow, a national representative for Unifor, said no amount of additional pilots could have prevented the impacts of severe winter weather on Sunwing’s operations. The airline is also solely responsible for the extended delays travellers are facing to get back home, he added.

“From the pilots’ perspective, from the pilots that we represent, the pilots are available to fly,” Snow said Friday.

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“It’s strictly an operational issue that the company has to deal with to ensure that they schedule the flights and they schedule pilots to fly the planes.”

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‘Miserable service’: Poilievre calls on feds to step up on air passenger rights

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.”

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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.

The company said Friday it has 43 flights planned for this week, 34 of which have either already operated or will be complete by the end of the day.

In early November, Unifor objected to Sunwing’s use of the federal temporary foreign worker program over safety concerns, saying the roughly 65 foreign pilots the airline wanted to bring on would have come from countries with less rigorous training requirements. Sunwing backed down a month later.

John Gradek, an aviation management lecturer at McGill University in Montreal, said the decision to abandon the staffing plan may have had an impact.

But he agreed the inability of Sunwing and other airlines to properly counter the winter weather could not be ignored.

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“This is Canada,” he told Global News in an interview Friday. “This is not Barbados. This is not beautiful, sunny, southern Florida. Snowstorms happen in Canada in the wintertime.

“The level of disruption … this is one for the books. This is not one that I would look at to be an exemplary way for the airlines to handle snowstorms, and something’s got to be done.”

Click to play video: 'Sunwing passengers continue to navigate luggage fiasco'

Sunwing passengers continue to navigate luggage fiasco

Gradek added this month’s chaos was especially egregious after the federal government and airlines promised in November that improvements would be made after travellers also faced long lines, cancellations and poor communication during the summer.

“And lo and behold, all of those wishes by the aviation community just didn’t come true,” he said.

What’s needed, he said, is more competition and better federal oversight, including accountability for airlines that prioritize profits and maximizing capacity over their operations and customer service.

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Sask. premier calls Sunwing’s move to end all Saskatchewan flights ‘irresponsible’

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.

“The system is broken,” he said.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre echoed those comments during a press conference in Ottawa on Friday, blaming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government for the “miserable service” Canadians are experiencing.

“This is a federal problem,” Poilievre said.

“The solution, of course, is to have a Canadian Transportation Agency that holds airlines accountable for breaking their word to the people. That’s what the agency’s there for, it is a federal agency and it is the machinery of government that is the responsibility of the prime minister to make that agency work.”

Click to play video: 'Poilievre blames Trudeau for airport chaos across Canada, calls for federal accountability'

Poilievre blames Trudeau for airport chaos across Canada, calls for federal accountability

The agency is an independent, quasi-judicial tribunal that operates at arms-length from the government, so measures Ottawa can take to address operational issues are limited.

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In response to Poilievre’s criticisms Friday, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra’s office said travellers’ frustrations over delayed and cancelled flights this holiday season are understandable, reiterating that what they’ve experienced is “unacceptable.”

WestJet acquisition looms

Spokesperson Ellen Kennedy would not say in a separate statement Thursday if the situation would impact Alghabra’s decision on whether to approve WestJet’s proposed acquisition of Sunwing, which the companies say they expect to be finalized by spring 2023.

“The public interest assessment has been completed and Minister Alghabra is carefully considering the transaction,” Kennedy said.

The Competition Bureau said in October it had concerns about the merger, saying it would likely result in higher prices and decreased service while creating an effective monopoly on at least 16 routes between Canada and Mexico or the Caribbean. The companies have disputed the watchdog’s claims, saying the routes in question make up a small portion of their operations.

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Click to play video: 'Transport minister ‘concerned’ about travellers stranded abroad'

Transport minister ‘concerned’ about travellers stranded abroad

Gradek said there’s “no doubt in my mind” that the merger will be approved, and could even prevent a repeat of this holiday season by integrating Sunwing’s system with WestJet’s operations, which are “much more able to handle winter than Sunwing’s.”

While Air Canada, WestJet and other airlines also saw delays and cancellations, Sunwing saw larger issues due to its relatively small size, with fewer planes available to repatriate Canadians stuck in Mexico, Cuba and other vacation hotspots.

Passengers who did manage to return home say their Sunwing flights appeared “half-empty,” even as hundreds of Canadians remained stranded.

Many say they will think twice before trusting Sunwing with their vacation plans again.

“I’m really going to think about Plan B and Plan C now, that’s for sure, when we head out of the country,” said Rod Perkins, who finally returned to his B.C. home on Thursday with his wife Rachelle after the couple were stranded overnight in Cuba.

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The situation was made more unsettling when their flight was cancelled after they had already handed over their visitor visas — leaving them at the mercy of Sunwing, who took them to a new hotel and then back to the airport to experience more delays.

“(In the future we’ll want to) make sure the worst-case scenario is covered, which this was,” Perkins said.

— with files from Global’s Kyle Benning, Neetu Garcha and Teresa Wright, and the Canadian Press

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