Sunwing Airlines says it committed only “minimal breaches” of the rules when thousands of people were left waiting for their flights, some longer than 18 hours, in Toronto and Montreal over a four day period in April 2018.
The airline’s claim is in response to an inquiry launched by the Canadian Transportation Agency. The national airline regulator launched its investigation after the agency received 579 complaints from Sunwing passengers left stranded by long delays during an ice storm in Toronto. Some of the complaints came from people aboard one flight where the situation got so desperate, police had to be called.
The problems for Sunwing and its passengers started April 14, when freezing rain and ice pellets hit Toronto, coating the region in ice for two days, snarling airplane traffic at Canada’s biggest airport and causing massive flight cancellations and delays. For Sunwing, 60% of its flights were delayed more than four hours, and 46% were delayed more than eight. But through it all, the airline chose not to cancel flights, electing instead to try to maintain service. It argued cancelling flights would only lead to more delays because of limited capacity to get people to resort destinations.
In one case, passengers boarded an aircraft bound for Cuba at 3:45 in the afternoon only to be let off the plane at 12:30 in the morning – still in Toronto – after a series of misadventures involving two de-ice procedures, refuelling, and a missing ground crew preventing the plane from getting back to the gate. Passengers then had to spend the night in the terminal, waiting for the flight to depart the following morning.
“While some of the tarmac delays were lengthy,” reads the company’s response, “the action of the captain and his cabin crew were at all times driven by the dynamic nature of the ultimate availability of a push back time. Any delay in being able to action a push back could lead to the loss of the slotted push back time thus exacerbating the overall length of the tarmac delay.”
In other words, flight attendants couldn’t start handing out food and water service unless they had 30 minutes to complete the service, and no one really knew when they’d have that window. On top of that, the captain was reluctant to let people off the plane, in case a departure window opened up, they had to be ready to go.
Conditions were so bad, that even flights that did manage to land could spend hours waiting for a gate.
Take, for example, Sunwing flight 715. It landed in Toronto at 10:21 at night after a flight from Aruba. The captain was told he’d have to wait an hour for a gate to be freed and was directed to a remote parking area, but no stairs or ground crew was available, meaning no one could get off. Time passed. On board, water was served, but the coffee and sandwiches were 20 hours old and couldn’t be offered to the passengers.
Five and a half hours after landing, with no progress in sight, the crew reported that two people were getting sick and the passengers in back were getting restless. That’s when the captain decided to act.
He declared an emergency, asking for an ambulance, the police, and a staircase.
It took six hours and 14 minutes for the last passenger to finally leave the plane – at 4:35 in the morning. Passengers struggled down the stairs in the freezing rain to waiting buses, and Police were tasked with keeping the passengers calm. The crew was advised to avoid the passengers, and ride in their own bus.
Despite public outrage, Sunwing maintains it followed all of its published rules during the delays, informing passengers of the situation to the best of its abilities, and offering passengers aboard delayed flights food and water while they waited on the ground, hence the claim of “minimal breaches” of the rules.
There is no doubt the delays over four days in April cost Sunwing a lot of money. The airline revealed it provided more than 15-thousand meal vouchers (worth between $10 and $30 each), 11-thousand compensation vouchers, 636 full cash refunds and another 5,000 partial refunds, and spent more than $260,000 getting delayed bags delivered to their rightful owners.
Those amounts do not include extra hotel nights and taxi vouchers for passengers stuck at sun destinations, waiting to return home.
Even the most conservative estimates suggest the incident cost the airline more than a $1 million out of pocket, not to mention staff overtime or the hit to its reputation on social media.
The Canadian Transportation Agency is now deciding whether Sunwing should pay even more in compensation and fines. It could also order other corrective actions.