“A Whole Gong Show”: Winter storm upends vacation air travel in Canada, thwarts family reunions and more

Linda Ricker has not spent Christmas with her son since December 2020. That year she traveled from her home in Florida to visit him in Halifax, where he is attending university. After two weeks of quarantine, she was able to enjoy time with her only child.

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

But after a massive winter storm swept across Canada on Friday, air travel was turned upside down. Hundreds of flights were severely delayed or cancelled, leaving thousands of passengers stranded and unable to meet up with loved ones over the holidays.

Ricker’s son was one of thousands affected – his Air Canada flight from Halifax to Fort Myers was canceled leaving him unsure of his vacation plans. He was eventually rebooked to fly to Toronto on December 26, waited nearly 20 hours, then fly to New York City, and then arrived in Florida at midnight on December 27.

“It just didn’t make sense because his return flight was December 30th so we would have had two days together so he would be 26 hours in transit?” said Ricker.

Ricker then attempted to cancel the flight on Air Canada’s website, but when she did, she was told to contact a customer service representative. The problem, she said, is that nobody answered.

“You can’t go online to cancel, and if they tell you to call someone, you can’t either,” she said. “I worry that we’ll end up paying for these flights that we don’t want.”

Many passengers, like Ricker, are abandoned with no communication from airlines on next steps for rescheduled flights, lost baggage, or what compensation they may be entitled to.

Peter Buchanan said he had been awake for 30 hours after his Friday flight was pushed back to Saturday night. This setback was a far cry from his first disappointment.

He was scheduled to depart for Zurich at 9.15am on December 23 on a business trip, but the flight was consistently delayed until passengers could board at 1.30am on Saturday. Another two hours passed before the aircraft doors were closed and the security video was played.

“At that point we thought the flight was about to depart,” he said. But 15 minutes later, the pilot said that by the time the plane landed in Zurich, it would put the crew past their allotted shift time. So the flight was cancelled.

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

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

For its part, the airline referred to the mitigating circumstances. “Despite winter storms that have devastated North America, Air Canada employees have worked very hard in difficult conditions over the past few days, safely transporting hundreds of thousands of customers to be with loved ones over the holiday season,” a spokesman said on Saturday.

Lindsay Sahota’s WestJet flight from Vancouver to Toronto was canceled on Thursday. The original written reason given by the airline was “Crew controllable in YYZ”, meaning that the reason for the cancellation was within the airline’s control.

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

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

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

She planned to visit her family in Toronto, the first Christmas with them since the pandemic began. Without a rescheduled flight, she can’t make plans to celebrate the holidays with loved ones across the country.

“I’m just wondering, was it actually the weather or staffing issues? There was just no communication and it’s frustrating. Just knowing that we might be able to catch a flight in a few days would be helpful, but they’re leaving us in the dark.”

On Saturday, WestJet canceled 60 flights scheduled to depart from Toronto Pearson International Airport and one flight scheduled for Sunday that was canceled before Christmas Day; that’s in addition to the 300 flights the airline canceled on December 23.

WestJet Chief Operations Officer Diederik Pen says the company apologizes for the disruption to holiday travel plans and its teams are trying to restore operations on the ground and in the air.

Friday’s worst winter storm appears to be over in many places, and Environment Canada lifted the winter storm warning for Toronto and the GTA. But departures delayed by hours were still a common sight, according to the Pearson International Airport website, and many concerned flights will continue to be affected throughout the weekend.

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

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

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

For Ricker, that means her 22-year-old son will be spending Christmas alone in Halifax after two difficult years in the wake of the pandemic.

“We were both so frustrated and emotional yesterday,” she said. “He’s alone and has no one. Of course I miss him a lot, we only see each other twice a year.”

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