Passenger Advocate Urges Sunwing Passengers Stranded in Mexico to Take Legal Action

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As hundreds of Canadians struggle to get home after their Sunwing flights from Mexico were canceled last week, a passenger rights advocate says stranded travelers should consider taking legal action if the airline doesn’t compensate them.

Gabor Lukacs, president and founder of the Air Passenger Rights group, says passengers dealing with canceled flights and inadequate information about when they might rebook should buy their own return tickets home with a different airline and keep careful records and receipts of their expenses.

If Sunwing refuses to compensate them under the Federal Air Passenger Protection Regulations, they must take the matter to small claims court, Lukacs said in an interview.

“We are at a point in Canada where suing an airline is not simply about their own money, it is about changing the way they operate. It’s all about modifying behavior,” she said. “And that’s where the government has refused to fulfill its duty to the public.”

He said passengers should also call their local member of parliament and ask for better enforcement of passenger rights in Canada.

As of Sunday, hundreds of Canadian travelers were stuck in Cancun, Mexico after Sunwing canceled their flights home. Some described being taken from one hotel to another, sometimes arriving to find there were no rooms reserved for them, while Sunwing officials offered inaccurate and incomplete information about when they could get home.

Sheldon de Souza said in an interview Monday that a similar situation is taking place in Puerto Vallarta, on the west coast of Mexico. He said he flew there with his wife, three children and three family friends on December 14, with a Sunwing flight home scheduled for December 21.

That flight was cancelled, although only some passengers were informed, he said. Several days of incomplete information and confusion from Sunwing followed, he said.

He and a group of passengers were transferred to different hotels and asked to check out every day and report to the lobby every hour, in case there was news of a flight.

Sunwing officials at the hotel were saying a flight was coming up and, hours later, saying it had been cancelled, de Souza said. He said that, in the meantime, the flights were not appearing in the airport’s daily schedules, leading De Souza to believe he was being misled.

He said he booked a spot on an Air Canada flight back to Calgary on December 23, which cost him around $1,000. His wife, his children and his friends managed to get a Sunwing flight home on Boxing Day, but only because they started showing up at the airport to lobby for a spot, he said.

He said they got seats on a Sunwing flight to Edmonton late on Christmas Day, and even showed up at the gate with boarding passes. But then officials said the crew was beyond their maximum allowed work hours and the plane was written off.

“It seemed that Sunwing had abandoned us, they didn’t care,” de Souza said. “It’s not even that they tried hard, they forgot about us.”

He said there were “several hundred” Canadians stranded in Puerto Vallarta when he left, and some are likely still there.

The Federal Air Passenger Protection Regulations require airlines to pay up to $1,000 in compensation for cancellations or significant delays resulting from reasons within the carrier’s control when notification is received 14 days or less prior to departure.

Lukacs said Sunwing is unlikely to pay voluntarily. The Canadian Transportation Agency, which acts as the federal airline regulator, doesn’t do enough to hold airlines accountable, he said, so they don’t feel much pressure to obey the rules.

Federal legislation gives agency law enforcement officers the power to investigate businesses and individuals they believe have broken the rules and issue fines of up to $25,000.

The regulator’s website shows that in the last five years only one airline, WestJet, in 55 cases as of the end of January, has been fined for failing to provide adequate compensation to passengers. The total fine was $11,000.

Lukacs said the agency is not issuing enough tickets. “The government is turning a blind eye to the misconduct of the airlines,” he said.

Neither Sunwing nor the Canadian Transportation Agency immediately responded to a request for comment.

Sunwing said in an email Sunday that it canceled flights due to bad weather and was trying to get people home “in the next few days.”

“Our teams are working hard to reaccommodate customers through aircraft maintenance where possible, as well as arranging alternative hotels and transfers for those with overnight delays,” the email said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on December 26, 2022.

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