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‘A complete gong show’: winter storm upends holiday air travel in Canada, thwarting family gatherings and more


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‘A complete gong show’: winter storm upends holiday air travel in Canada, thwarting family gatherings and more

Linda Ricker hasn’t spent Christmas with her son since December 2020. That year, she travelled from her Florida home to visit him in Halifax, where he attends university. After quarantining for two weeks, she was able to enjoy quality time with her only child.

This year, Ricker thought, would be different. COVID-19 restrictions are no longer in effect for air travel. It could be a pre-pandemic Christmas again.

But after a giant winter storm struck across Canada on Friday, air travel was upended. Hundreds of flights were severely delayed or cancelled, leaving thousands of passengers stranded and unable to reunite with loved ones for the holidays.

Ricker’s son was one of the thousands affected — his Air Canada flight from Halifax to Fort Myers was cancelled, leaving him unsure of holiday plans. He was eventually rebooked to fly out to Toronto on Dec. 26, wait almost 20 hours to then fly to New York City and then arrive in Florida at midnight on Dec. 27.

“It just made no sense, because his return flight was on Dec. 30, so we would have had two days together for him to be in transit for 26 hours?” Ricker said.

Ricker then tried to cancel the flight on Air Canada’s website, but when she did, it told her to contact a customer service agent. The problem, she said, is that no one was picking up.

“You can’t go online to cancel and when they tell you to call someone, you can’t do that either,” she said. “I’m worried we’re going to end up paying for these flights we don’t want.”

Many passengers, like Ricker, are left in the lurch without communication from the airlines on next steps on rescheduled flights, lost baggage, or what compensation they may be entitled to.

Peter Buchanan said that he had been awake for 30 hours, after his Friday flight was rescheduled to Saturday evening. That setback was far from his first disappointment.

He was scheduled to leave on a work trip to Zurich at 9:15 a.m. on Dec. 23, but the flight was continually delayed, until air passengers were able to board at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday. There, another two hours passed before the airplane doors were closed and the safety video was played.

“At that point, we were thinking the flight would be leaving,” he said. But 15 minutes later the pilot said that by the time the plane landed in Zurich, it would put the crew over their designated work shift time. Therefore, the flight was cancelled.

At 5 a.m., Buchanan retrieved his bags which was “a complete free-for-all” with luggage on the same flights placed on different carousels and dozens of unclaimed bags strewn all over the floor. During the two-day delay, Buchanan said no complimentary food or drinks were offered to the affected passengers.

“At no point was there any word of compensation or an attitude of really trying to help us,” he said. “I’m loyal to Air Canada but this was a complete gong show.”

For its part, the airline pointed to the extenuating circumstances. “Despite winter storms wreaking havoc across North America, Air Canada employees have been working very hard in severe conditions over recent days and have safely transported hundreds of thousands of customers to be with loved ones over the holidays,” a spokesperson said Saturday.

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Lindsay Sahota’s WestJet flight from Vancouver to Toronto was cancelled on Thursday. The initial reason given in writing from the airline’s was due to “crew controllable in YYZ,” meaning the reason for the cancellation was within the airline’s control.

But at boarding time, she overheard customer agents telling passengers the flight was delayed due to weather issues in Toronto.

Sahota had wait two hours to pick up her luggage, but one of the two items never arrived. She was told at the airport to file a claim for lost baggage online. When she went home and filed the claim, a pop-up on the website told her she needed to speak to a customer service agent to file the claim.

“It took three hours on the call, but someone from WestJet finally filed the claim for me,” she said. “I’m still not sure where that baggage is … that flight never left the airport.”

She was planning to visit family in Toronto, the first Christmas with them since the pandemic began. Without a rescheduled flight, she’s unable to make plans to mark the holidays with her loved ones across the country.

“I just wonder, was it actually the weather or staffing issues? There’s just been no communication and it’s frustrating. Even just to know that we might be able to hop on a flight in a few days would be helpful but they’re leaving us in the dark.”

On Saturday, WestJet cancelled 60 flights scheduled to fly out of Toronto Pearson International Airport, as well as one flight scheduled for Sunday that’s been cancelled ahead of Christmas Day; that’s in addition to the 300 flights the airline called off on Dec. 23.

WestJet’s chief operations officer Diederik Pen says the company apologizes for the disruptions to holiday travel plans and its teams are trying to recover operations on the ground and in the air.

The worst of Friday’s winter storm seems to have passed in many places, and Environment Canada called off the winter storm warning for Toronto and the GTA. But departures delayed by hours were still a common sight on Pearson International Airport’s website, and many worried flights will continue to be impacted all weekend long.

On Thursday, Air Canada said due to the winter storm “a goodwill refund policy” will be implemented allowing customers to request a refund or travel voucher if the ticket was purchased no later than Dec. 21, 2022 for travel between Dec. 22 and Dec. 26. The flight must also be to or from an airport in Canada.

“If you’re scheduled to travel during the affected period, you can retrieve your booking to request a refund up to two hours before departure, free of charge on your Air Canada flight,” the Air Canada website says.

But even if refunds or compensation can be offered, many air passengers have missed spending the holidays with loved ones.

For Ricker, that means her 22-year-old son will spend Christmas alone in Halifax, after a trying two years from the pandemic.

“We were both so frustrated and emotional yesterday,” she said. “He’s there by himself and doesn’t have anyone. I obviously miss him a lot, we only see each other twice a year.”

Clarrie Feinstein is a Toronto-based business reporter for the Star. Reach Clarrie via email: clarriefeinstein@torstar.ca

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