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Canadian air travel hits another new low thanks to Sunwing mess

John Cairns’ News Watch - The outrageous Sunwing airline meltdown is the talk of Saskatchewan.
Regina airport
Saskatchewan air travellers take it on the chin again with the latest Sunwing news that they are suspending flights for this month.

REGINA - Because the audience finds it so entertaining when they catch me in a bad mood, today I am going to talk about air travel in Canada.

The reason I am in a foul mood is because, you guessed it, I am coming off my latest annual ordeal of having to fly to and from Kelowna during the Christmas holidays to visit my family. 

Every year at this same time, it is a gong show. Weather delays. Missed connections. Last year, it was long security lines. And I should add it costs a fortune for the flights, as airlines take full advantage of travellers hoping to visit their families during the holidays. 

This Christmas, I flew to British Columbia at the same time that flights out of Vancouver were grounded due to bad winter weather. Fortunately, Kelowna wasn’t so hard hit and I was able to make it — only an hour delay at the airport for me.

Other Canadians were far less lucky, with cancelled flights and general mayhem. Airports across Canada became yet another massive paid political advertisement for Pierre Poilievre. “Canada is broken,” all right. 

What’s remarkable is that the nation’s media were harping on Poilievre for his “Canada is broken” line, when they should have been roasting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the optics of taking a vacation in, of all places, Jamaica. Meanwhile, Canadians were getting stranded in Mexico, Cuba, and other international places — not to mention those still at home who found out their own upcoming winter vacation plans were getting ruined.

It’s already been a year of travel messes. This summer, it had to do with continued nonsensical COVID-19 mandates and the associated hassles with staff shortages and delays, with passengers and luggage stuck in long lineups at major airports. 

The government promised to do something about this, and finally got rid of the mandates at the airports. 

But then another situation developed after the round of major winter storms that gripped most of North America in December, with the mass of flight cancellations at Canada’s airports. Flights out of Vancouver and Toronto were the hardest hit with those airports buried in snow. We heard stories of Canadian connecting travellers left stranded at Canadian airports for hours on end and even for days, without even the opportunity to stay in local hotels because those were booked up.

Then came this big meltdown at Sunwing.

For the benefit of all you WestJet and Air Canada customers who don't fly with them, Sunwing is the airline/tour operator responsible for direct flights to and from your favourite sun destination locations including Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and other places where the weather is good in wintertime.

What messed up Sunwing this time was their inability to figure out how to fly out of the places where the weather wasn’t good. It wasn’t just that the winter storms delayed the flights — the availability of crews and airliners was messed up to the point that travellers were left stranded in Sunwing destinations such as Mexico and Cuba. 

Sunwing has lately been going through the embarrassing spectacle of sending “recovery” flights to repatriate the passengers left stranded.

Look, bad weather is a fact of life at this time of year, and weather delays happen. What I have a problem with is when there is no viable plan in place to take care of travellers when delays do happen.

Passengers need to be looked after and put up in hotels, and alternative arrangements need to be found to get people home. There’s no excuse for stranding people in international locations. It's not like these places are remote desert islands! Cancun has a big international airport. Havana has a big international airport. 

If Sunwing couldn’t get their act together to promptly fly people out of there, they could have at least arranged to have them flown out on other airlines operating there, on their own dime. Instead, we hear multiple reports of people stuck at resorts and airports for hours and days, and complaining of being left in the dark by officials as to what was going on. Now we even hear reports of delays for people trying to get their money back. It's a big debacle. 

Mind you, Canada is not alone in dealing with airline mayhem. Down in the USA, Southwest Airlines had a major service meltdown that saw over 16,000 flights cancelled during bad winter weather.

The difference down there is that the Biden administration is hopping mad at Southwest for what happened. That airline is going to be hauled before Congress to face the music and be publicly humiliated for its total incompetence. 

But here in Canada, we rarely demand better. We are all so polite, we believe in second chances and so on, and we put up with mediocrity in our whole freaking society with overcrowded health care, slap-on-the-wrist sentences for criminals, supply chain shortages, etc. Given that backdrop, our country's airlines must think they can get off scot-free. 

Not this time. The people in charge, in particular members of the federal transport committee meeting this week, need to send Canada's airlines a message that things have to change. There needs to be actual accountability for this screwup by Sunwing, and for the rest of the nonsense impacting travel this holiday season.

Already, there is talk of class action lawsuits and a lot of venom being spewed towards Sunwing on social media and elsewhere. One local business is ridiculing the airline in radio ads by referring to “Dumbwing.” I have a feeling Sunwing might not be in business for much longer.

It all adds up to more problems for our already embattled travel industry — for our airports and travel agents and hotels who were hoping to come back from the pandemic. With air travel still a mess, who’s going to want to travel? 

What stings the most from a Saskatchewan perspective is that Sunwing ended up cancelling all of its flights from Saskatoon and Regina through Feb. 3. 

That’s a ton of sun vacations gone, and vacation plans ruined, during the one freezing cold month of the year when everyone in Saskatchewan is desperate to get out. 

Fresh off of Air Canada cancelling its Calgary routes, this news has brought out all the reaction from Saskatchewan people who see this as yet another humiliation, with our nation’s airlines again disrespecting the province and giving us the shaft. 

But there is a big silver lining to this for local travellers. There’s far less likelihood Saskatchewan people will be stranded in the tropics by Sunwing if they can’t fly with them.

It also might not be a good idea to go to Mexico, period. Violence erupted in the state of Sinaloa following the arrest of the son of drug lord El Chapo, resulting in travellers in places like Mazatlan essentially stuck in their hotels.

Looking at the big picture, there has to be a better way for people to travel than what we have to put up with in 2023. Among other things, there have got to be better options out there than these cartel-ridden areas of Mexico. 

At the very least, we need more competition in this country for cheaper flights to sun destinations. But we keep on hearing rumours that there could be more consolidation coming to the airline industry in this country, and that could mean higher prices.

If Sunwing does end up getting sued out of business, how are we going to get to any reasonably-priced sun destinations in the pit of winter? By hitchhiking?