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Don Martin: How bad was the committee hearing over holiday travel woes? Let me count the ways

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The airlines and airports that threw so many Christmas plans into hard reverse thrust have a simple explanation for the memory-destroying misery they inflicted on so many family holidays: Terribly sorry, but it’s not our fault.

The Standing Committee on Transport gathered Thursday with MPs demanding an explanation for how that highly unusual Canadian winter combination of heavy snow and cold temperatures which delayed or cancelled thousands of post-pandemic reunions. What they got was a gold-medal finger-pointing performance.

How bad was it? Let me count the ways.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, who didn’t personally connect with airports or airlines until January 5, insisted the system has improved under his watch and that the mayhem was mostly due to the lousy flight plan by Sunwing, which stranded hundreds of Canadians in Mexico.

His making-things-better plan involves boosting fines in the air passenger bill of rights, even though 33,000 passengers currently have appeals for rejected compensation in front of the Canadian Transportation Agency.

Agency staff told MPs that figure doesn’t yet include what will likely be a rush of furious files from those who suffered through last month’s holiday debacle.

Of course, it defies compensation comprehension how higher fines will motivate airlines to improve their performance when they’re rarely hit by maximum penalties and still reject lesser settlements in large numbers, but that’s apparently the government’s only answer to this public relations problem.

But I digress.

When MPs at the committee finally stopped with their partisan questions and focused on why so many Canadians were stuck on planes waiting for a parking spot or trapped in airport departure lounges for days with little to no explanation from airline staff, the blame game began in earnest.

Airports couldn’t remove empty planes from the gates to make way for passenger-filled aircraft because they don’t have the power to tow them and the airlines didn’t consider it safe to switch planes while heavy snow was falling. A similar reason was advanced for why airlines couldn’t disembark trapped passengers via external stairs.

Food and beverages were not delivered to passengers suffering double or even triple the 3.75-hour maximum limit for being trapped on the tarmac because, well, the airlines never asked the airport to deliver relief supplies.

If your travel essentials were lost in that mountain of baggage in Toronto, the blame fell to a cart collision complicated by, get this, wind blowing in the wrong direction that froze up some machinery.

Hard-hit Saskatchewan passengers can blame the federal government for denying Sunwing’s request to hire 63 foreign worker pilots to fill the cockpit blanks on their schedule just a week before the Christmas rush took off.

Planes were forced to turn around after de-icing liquid was freezing before they could take off, a phenomenon I have never experienced even when departing Calgary in 40-below temperatures.

Airlines also argued fault for service interruptions should be shared with other agencies, such as lineup-inducing security and customs clearance operations. Strange, then, how airport spokespeople insisted that neither was a major problem during the 2022 holiday season.

But, of course, the overarching excuse was how a metre of snow, some high winds and chilly temperatures conspired to create a weather bomb that shut down on-time air travel by shredding connection schedules at major airports, this in a land where harsh winters are not exactly radical climate change.

Keep in mind this aviation holiday hell was unleashed after Toronto and Vancouver airports topped the charts as the worst airports on the planet last summer for delayed or cancelled flights, a feat which motivated the feds to host an industry summit last November to fix the problem ahead of the holidays.

At the end of the committee’s long day, witnesses were mostly repeating the same old, same old weather excuses without offering serious solutions to prevent another meltdown, although give WestJet credit for putting better communication with stranded passengers at the top of its self-improvement list.

Still, this systemic failure to deal with the perfect storm of a blizzard, operational ineptitude, effective contingency plans and a disrupted connection schedule should become the definitive textbook on how to avoid a repeat.

The big test to see if any lessons have been learned is already on the horizon. Spring break’s air traffic jam is nine weeks away.

That’s the bottom line….

Correction

This column has been edited to take out the name of an airline in the line pertaining to lost baggage due to erroneous information.

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