The House of Commons committee that handles transportation issues has agreed to launch a special study into the treatment of air and rail passengers this holiday season and will be calling on officials from the major airlines and Via Rail, as well as Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, to testify.
At an emergency meeting on Monday—called for by opposition MPs—committee members unanimously agreed to start this study before the House is scheduled to resume on Jan. 30. The first hearing will take place on Thursday and is expected to see the minister field a series of questions about what transpired and what accountability there will be.
Numerous incidents led to passengers struggling to get to their destinations this holiday season amid widespread delays and cancellations, including a Via Rail train derailment resulting in cascading chaos and hundreds of Sunwing passengers being stranded in Mexico after the airline called off flights.
MPs will also be calling on representatives from Sunwing, Air Canada and WestJet; authorities from the Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver airports; Via Rail and CN Rail; the Canadian Transportation Agency and Transport Canada; as well as air passenger advocates and affected travellers to testify.
While this special set of hearings will focus on the period between December 2022 and January 2023, the committee will be incorporating its findings into a broader ongoing review underway on air passenger rights, as the debacle has given renewed attention on Canada’s process for handling travel complaints.
The agreement to embark on this study came after MPs took turns sharing their dismay over what transpired for travellers this holiday season.
“Many of our constituents had their holiday plans disrupted or ruined, and spent long periods of time in airport or hotel lobbies, or in train cabins waiting for updates that were too slow in coming,” said committee chair and Liberal MP Peter Schiefke during Monday’s meeting. “Thousands of individuals and families had particularly miserable experiences that were compounded by futile attempts at trying to get clear explanations or trying to secure compensation for the time and money that they spent.”
He added: “Although weather delays are a part of winters in Canada, some of the poor service travellers received cannot be explained solely by weather.”
Last week, Alghabra told CTV News that he would “be delighted” to have the opportunity to discuss the matter with his colleagues. In an email on Monday, his office confirmed that the minister will testify.
In an interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play with Vassy Kapelos on Monday, Alghabra said that in light of what transpired during the holiday travel season, he’s hoping to table proposed changes to strengthen the relatively new air passenger bill of rights in the next few months.
“The minister has always appeared at Committee when asked. He will be happy to appear and take the committee’s questions,” said his press secretary Nadine Ramadan.
At Monday’s meeting, MPs spoke about how the committee has a role to play in helping Canadians understand what happened and what their rights are, to hold those responsible accountable beyond the explanations and apologies given by some transportation companies so far, and to seek assurances that similar issues won’t happen again.
“We need to situate this discussion not only in the context of the travel chaos that happened over the holidays … But we need to address the larger context as well. And that context is the fact that we have a failed system in Canada for dealing with passenger rights,” said NDP transport critic and committee member Taylor Bachrach, noting that there are currently more than 30,000 complaints before the Canadian Transportation Agency.
“I very much look forward to Thursday’s meeting … I look forward to getting answers on behalf of the hundreds of Canadians who were stuck in such difficult situations over the holidays. And, I hope through the work of this committee, we can improve Canada’s air passenger protections for once and for all, so that no one has to face these kinds of experiences again,” Bachrach said.
Initially, the Liberals indicated a desire to call a meeting to hear from Sunwing and Via Rail about the “unacceptable” delays and cancellations,” but opposition MPs pushed to expand the committee’s work.
“We in the Conservative Party are tired of hearing Liberal ministers say that things are ‘unacceptable’ when they have the power to make change … So we need to get to the bottom of this, here at this committee. We are the body that is charged with holding the department, holding the minister accountable on behalf of all parliamentarians and on behalf of all Canadians, so we intend to take that work seriously,” said Conservative transport critic and committee vice-chair Mark Strahl.
Sunwing has apologized for holiday travel disruptions, citing “clear failures in execution, particularly in responding to weather-related delays and the aftermath of severe weather disruptions.” The airline is now facing a potential class-action lawsuit over the December travel issues.
After long wait times and flight cancellations plagued Canadian travellers throughout most of the summer months, with reports of lost luggage and a lack of communication from airlines, minister Alghabra appeared confident that the winter holiday travel season would be smoother.
The minister said that he had been working with the CEOs of major airlines and airports, as well as the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, to ensure the busy season didn’t see the same kinds of issues that have plagued the sector since it has tried to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were promised, quite frankly, by the Liberal minister, that these matters were addressed … Clearly, it has not been fixed,” Strahl said. “Canadians deserve better, and it’s up to this group to make sure that we get the answers that we deserve.”
On Monday, Alghabra sought to defend his past remarks, saying that what was seen over the holiday season with “extreme weather events” was very different than last summer’s “crush of travellers.”
The post MPs calling minister, airlines, and passengers to testify as part of holiday travel chaos study appeared first on WorldNewsEra.