Sunwing fined almost $700,000 for massive delays

A Sunwing 737-800 departs from Vancouver International Airport (photo: Brett Ballah)

Sunwing Airlines, a Canadian leisure travel company, has been fined $700,000 for leaving thousands of passengers stranded during a massive ice storm in Toronto and Montreal one year ago.

“This is a significant determination for air passengers and air carriers,” said Scott Streiner, Chair and CEO of the Canadian Transportation Agency which regulates Canada’s airlines. “It underscores that passengers have rights and recourse when their air travel is disrupted, and that even when problems stem from events such as bad weather, there is a minimum standard of treatment to which all passengers are entitled.”

The CTA received almost 600 complaints when an ice storm paralyzed operations at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson airport. While other airlines cancelled flights in response to the storm, Sunwing tried to maintain its schedule, leading to massive delays in the terminal. Sixty per cent of its flights were delayed more than four hours, and 46% were delayed more than eight.

In one case, passengers boarded a “flight to nowhere” when their plane left the gate, spent hours on the ground in Toronto, shuffled between two de-icing procedures, a refuelling, and finally returning to a gate where no crew was available to meet them.

Passengers complained they were left without food and water, and without anyone to tell them what was going on. The problems that began in Toronto quickly spread to Montreal as planes could not their assigned routes.

Through it all, Sunwing argued it had committed only minimal breaches of its own rules.

On top of the fine, the airline has been ordered to reimburse delayed passengers for lost baggage, hotels and meals.

“The decision finding that Sunwing broke the rules is most welcome, but the that was issued fine lacks transparency,” said Gabor Lukacs, founder of Air Passenger Rights, a Canadian passenger lobby group. “There are a number of concerns about it.”

Lukacs said, for example, the overall fine consists of a number of fines for delayed flights. He argued instead, the fine should be based on a per passenger basis. In all, 16,255 passengers were delayed aboard 96 flights.

Without revealing a dollar figure, Sunwing says it has already 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. Another 80 passengers told the CTA their complaints had not been addressed.

When calculated per passenger, the $694,500 fine amounts to $42.73. Sunwing has until May 10 to pay or to appeal the decision.