As hundreds of Canadians scramble to get home after their Sunwing flights from Mexico were cancelled last week, a passengers' rights advocate says stranded travellers should consider legal action if they aren't compensated by the airline.
Gabor Lukacs, president and founder of the Air Passenger Rights group, says passengers grappling with cancelled flights and inadequate information about when they might be rebooked should buy their own tickets home with a different carrier, and keep careful records and receipts of their expenses.
If Sunwing refuses to compensate them under the federal Air Passenger Protection Regulations, they should take the matter to small claims court, Lukacs said in an interview.
"We're at a point in Canada where suing an airline is not simply about your own money, it's about changing how they operate. It's about behaviour modification," he said. "And that's where the government is derelict in its duties to the public."
He said passengers should also phone their local member of Parliament and ask for better enforcement of passenger rights in Canada.
As of Sunday, hundreds of Canadian travellers were stuck in Cancún, Mexico after Sunwing cancelled their flights home. Some described being shuffled from hotel to hotel, sometimes arriving to find there were no rooms booked for them, while Sunwing officials offered inaccurate and incomplete information about when they might get home.
Sheldon de Souza said in an interview Monday that a similar situation is playing out in Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's west coast. He said he flew there with his wife, three kids and three family friends on Dec. 14, with a flight home scheduled with Sunwing on Dec. 21.
That flight was cancelled, though only some passengers were told, he said. Several days of incomplete information and confusion from Sunwing followed, he said.
He and a group of fellow passengers were moved to different hotels and asked to check out each day and report back to the lobby every hour, in case there was news of a flight.
Sunwing officials at the hotel would say there was a flight coming up then, hours later, would say it had been cancelled, de Souza said. He said in the meantime, the flights wouldn't show up on the airport's daily schedules, leading de Souza to believe he was being misled.
He said he booked himself a spot on an Air Canada flight back to Calgary on Dec. 23, which cost him about $1,000. His wife, his children and their friends managed to get a Sunwing flight home on Boxing Day, but only because they started showing up at the airport to push for a spot, he said.
He said they had snagged seats on a Sunwing flight to Edmonton late on Christmas Day, even making it to the gate with boarding passes. But then officials said the crew were beyond their allowed maximum working hours and the plane was cancelled.
"It felt like Sunwing just abandoned us, they didn't care," de Souza said. "It's not even that they made an effort, they forgot 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 mandates airlines to pay up to $1,000 in compensation for cancellations or significant delays that stem from reasons within the carrier's control when the notification comes 14 days or less before departure.
Lukacs said it's unlikely Sunwing will voluntarily pay up. 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 grants the agency's enforcement officers the power to investigate companies and individuals it believes have broken the rules and to issue fines of up to $25,000.
The regulator's website shows that in the past five years, just one carrier — WestJet, for 55 instances in late January — has been fined for not providing adequate compensation to passengers. The total penalty was $11,000.
Lukacs said the agency isn't issuing enough fines. "The government is turning a blind eye to airlines' misconduct," he said.
Neither Sunwing nor the Canadian Transportation Agency responded immediately to a request for comment.
Sunwing said in an email Sunday that it cancelled the flights because of bad weather and that it was trying to get people home "in the coming days."
"Our teams are working hard to re-accommodate customers by subservicing aircraft where possible, in addition to arranging alternate hotels and transfers for those with overnight delays," the email said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 26, 2022.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press