Saskatchewan PM calls Sunwing’s decision to end flights in province “irresponsible”

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Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says Sunwing Vacations’ decision to suspend its flights from Saskatoon and Regina airports for a month is irresponsible.

The airline announced Thursday that it would immediately cancel operations through February 3 at both Saskatchewan international airports due to extenuating circumstances.

He said customers with canceled southbound flights would receive a full refund and those trying to return home would receive information soon.

“This is a highly irresponsible decision by Sunwing for everyone who has booked a vacation, particularly those who are currently at their destination and are unsure how and when they will get home,” Moe said in a statement Friday.

“While airlines and air travel are regulated by the federal government, Saskatchewan Transportation Minister Jeremy Cockrill has been in contact with Sunwing and Federal Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra to request a detailed plan for how to and when the passengers who traveled from Saskatchewan, which is the immediate priority, will return.

“In the coming days, we expect Sunwing to adequately compensate everyone who did not receive the service they purchased.”

Sunwing said in its statement on Thursday that it had planned to supplement the seasonal demand for travel from Saskatoon and Regina with the assistance of temporary foreign pilots for the winter months.

“When the deployment of foreign pilots was not agreed, we brought in subservices to maintain our operations, however the conditions and schedule have proven too important for our subserviced aircraft partners,” the airline said. “We have attempted to reposition Sunwing aircraft to support, but have been unable to do so as a result of flight delays and cancellations caused by recent weather disruptions and high demand during the peak holiday period.”

The airline is still struggling to bring hundreds of passengers home from destinations like Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, after winter storms disrupted operations for the holidays.

John Gradek, professor of aviation management at McGill University in Montreal, called the situation a “debacle” signaling the need for more government regulation of the airline industry.

Although many airlines had to cancel flights due to storms, extreme cold and freezing rain gripping much of Canada in the days leading up to Christmas, Sunwing in particular had a hard time recovering. That’s because it’s a much smaller airline, with fewer flights in and out of its destinations, Gradek said in an interview on Friday.

An airline like WestJet or Air Canada would likely have multiple round-trip flights per day and thus have a better chance of carrying passengers left in limbo by a cancellation. But Sunwing can only fly back and forth a few times a week, he said, and his main option for rescuing those passengers is to charter planes from other carriers.

Gradek said, however, that Christmas is the peak travel season and there are not many empty planes waiting to be chartered.

“Mother Nature has a way of taking the biggest players on the field and fighting against them,” he said. “And this is exactly what happened.”

It could get worse for Sunwing passengers before it gets better, Gradek added. Early January is also a busy time, and if the weather worsens and forces cancellations, Sunwing will take care of those passengers in addition to the pre-Christmas backlog.

Gradek noted that the federal transport minister met with members of the air transport industry last month for an autopsy after a summer of chaos at Canadian airports.

“Basically, he promised Canadians in November that we wouldn’t repeat the summer performance over Christmas,” Gradek said. “And lo and behold, guess what? We’re there, and even worse.”

He said it’s time for Ottawa to look at how it can ensure airlines can deliver on the schedules they promise and sell to the public.

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