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'I was panicking': More passengers ask for help following Sunwing flight cancellations

The Canadian Transportation Agency says it received 46 complaints involving Sunwing flight cancellations over the past two months. Some affected passengers paid out of pocket to rebook themselves on other airlines.

Airline says it will compensate affected passengers who rebooked on other airlines

The Canadian Transportation Agency received 46 complaints involving Sunwing flight cancellations between May 1 and June 25. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

Sunwing said on Friday it will compensate passengers who had to pay extra to rebook on other airlines after the carrier cancelled a spate of flights in May and June. 

The flight cancellations sparked anger and frustration, with a total of 46 passengers filing complaints with the Canadian Transportation Agency.

Twenty-three of the complaints involved cancelled flights between Toronto and Vancouver. Those cases, plus three others, were connected to the grounding of Boeing's 737 Max aircraft, the CTA said. It didn't provide details for the remaining 20 cases. 

CBC first reported on the flight cancellations in May when a family of 10 requested help after Sunwing cancelled their flight from Toronto to their home of Vancouver, with just four days' notice. The family said the airline offered to fly them home nine days after their original departure date. 

After being contacted by CBC, Sunwing flew the family home on time on a different airline. 

Following that story, CBC received more than 20 complaints from other Sunwing passengers. Many plead for help, saying the airline also cancelled their flights on short notice, leaving them with untenable options, such as a new flight on a different date or a refund on tickets that, if rebooked now for the same date, would cost much more on another airline.

Many of the passengers who contacted CBC News didn't file a complaint with the CTA, saying they didn't know that was an option. That includes Laryssa Gorecki, who said Sunwing gave her five days' notice it had cancelled her round-trip flight from Toronto to Vancouver, set to depart on June 1. 

"I was panicking," said the Toronto high school teacher, who was headed to Vancouver to make a presentation at a national conference for educators. 

Laryssa Gorecki is shown in Vancouver, where she attended an educators conference. Because Sunwing cancelled her flight to the West Coast city, she spend an extra $590 to rebook on another airline. (Submitted by Laryssa Gorecki)

Gorecki said Sunwing only offered her a refund or an alternate flight on unsuitable dates. In desperation, she rebooked on another airline, paying an extra $590 — on top of her refund — for a last-minute flight.

"I didn't have a choice," she said, calling her experience with Sunwing disappointing. "They're unreliable, irresponsible, and it just left a really bad taste in my mouth."

Larry Peloso, left, and his husband, Andy Neilson, wait at a smaller airport in London, Ont., for their flight to B.C. (Submitted by Larry Peloso)

Fellow Torontonian Larry Peloso is also upset over his experience with Sunwing. He and his husband booked a round-trip flight from Toronto to Vancouver, departing on May 31, to attend his nephew's wedding.

Peloso said the airline informed him eight days before departure that the couple's flights were cancelled, and offered to rebook them on unworkable dates. 

"I booked this in February, and for them to call me at the end of May just seemed to me to be very bad [customer service]," he said. 

Peloso begrudgingly took a refund and, to avoid incurring added costs for last-minute flights, rebooked their trip on an ultra-low-cost carrier that flies out of smaller airports outside of Toronto and Vancouver. The new flights added about six hours' driving time to the itinerary, which meant the couple had to each take an extra day off work, rent a car and rearrange some of their other travel plans.

"We sort of made the best of a bad situation. And as far as I'm concerned, Sunwing washed their hands of the entire thing," said Peloso. "They lost a customer and lost a lot of goodwill."

Why the cancellations?

In its response to CBC News, Sunwing implied that the 737 Max groundings were behind all of its recent flight cancellations. The airline didn't specify how many passengers or flights were affected.

A number of airlines grounded their Max fleet in mid-March following two fatal crashes involving the model. Sunwing has four 737 Max planes, which make up less than 10 per cent of its fleet.

To avoid disruptions, the airline said it hired third-party carriers to replace its grounded aircraft — but this solution suddenly hit a snag. 

"Unfortunately, we were not able to source additional flying capacity to cover all our routes this summer and did need to make some cancellations in late May," said Sunwing spokesperson Jacqueline Grossman in an email. 

"This was unforeseen at the time of accepting reservations for our summer program and while regrettable, it was beyond the control of the company."

The airline said it made every effort to contact affected passengers in a timely manner and initially offered them the option of a refund or a flight on an alternate date.

Sunwing said it later modified its policy to offer affected passengers with departures in July and onward flights on other airlines on their original travel dates, at no extra cost.

"Customer satisfaction is of paramount importance to us and we sincerely regret the inconvenience that our customers experienced," said Grossman. 

What about the other passengers?

Following a second CBC inquiry, Sunwing said that passengers with departure dates before July who rebooked on other airlines at an added expense will be reimbursed. 

The airline also said it would contact Laryssa Gorecki to refund her the extra money she paid out of pocket to rebook her flight. 

"It was a bumpy road but I'm just happy that they're coming through with it," Gorecki said. 

Peloso is less excited about the news, as he doubts he'll be compensated for having to take an extra day off work or for the hours he spent driving to out-of-town airports. "It's sort of too little, too late."

Affected Sunwing passengers who believe they're entitled to compensation can submit receipts and fill out a post-travel complaint form on Sunwing's website

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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