Business

'How can they do this?' Family struggles to get home after Sunwing cancels flight with 4 days' notice

The Juanima family’s vacation ended on a sour note when they found out — four days in advance — that their flight home on Sunwing had been cancelled. After being contacted by CBC News, Sunwing found flights for all family members

After being contacted by CBC News, Sunwing found flights for all family members

Catherine Juanima with her husband, Tristan and three-year-old son pose while on vacation in Europe. The family didn't find out their flight home to Vancouver was cancelled until four days before departure. (Submitted by Catherine Juanima)

The Juanima family's three-week vacation ended on a sour note. The ten family members spent their final days in a Toronto hotel, stressing over how they'd return home to Vancouver after Sunwing cancelled their flight — four days before departure and with no explanation.

"What are we going to do now?" said an anxious Catherine Juanima from her hotel room, surrounded by members of her extended family.

"How can they do this to their customers?"

When a passenger's flight is cancelled, it can be difficult to figure out one's rights.

Canada's air passenger protection regulations, rolling out in mid-July, set out compensation amounts and treatment standards for all airlines when flights are delayed or cancelled.

But until the new rules take effect, passengers must decipher the current ones themselves, which vary by airline and are tucked away in a carrier's tariff — a lengthy legal document that many Canadians don't even know exists.

The Juanima family on their way to Europe for a family vacation. (Submitted by Catherine Juanima)

The Juanima family got word on May 17 that their May 21 Sunwing flight to Vancouver was cancelled. At the time, they had just flown to Toronto on another airline, after spending two weeks in Europe.

Juanima said Sunwing offered the 10 family members two options: A refund for their tickets which had been booked in January, or they could wait nine days in Toronto — at the family's expense — for the next Sunwing flight to Vancouver.

The family needed to return to their jobs or school, but they weren't prepared to pay the estimated $5,000 total it would cost them — on top of their refund — to purchase last-minute flights on another airline.

"I told [the Sunwing customer service rep], 'What do you want us to do now? We don't have money to go back,'" said Juanima.

The employee offered a $100 travel voucher per family member for a future Sunwing flight and an apology, but nothing more, said Juanima

"She can't just say, 'Sorry,' and leave us stranded."

Family contacts CBC

In desperation, the family reached out to CBC News which contacted Sunwing on Tuesday — the day the family was supposed to fly to Vancouver.

CBC pointed out that, according to the airline's tariff, when a passenger's flight is cancelled "without reasonable notice," Sunwing must offer to transport the passenger to their destination "at the earliest opportunity, at no additional cost."

The airline must also provide compensation for any additional expenses.

Shortly after CBC's inquiry, Sunwing arranged for the family to fly home that same day on an Air Canada flight. Sunwing also said it would compensate them for having to extend their hotel stay another day, because the flight left late in the evening.

"I'm so relieved," said Juanima who believes the family would still be in limbo if she hadn't contacted the media.

"Why do we have to work so hard? We're not even asking for anything above and beyond what we lost."

Sunwing said the family's flight was cancelled due to it extending the grounding of its four Boeing 737 Max jetliners. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

Sunwing apologized for the family's inconvenience and said the flight was cancelled due to it extending the grounding of its four Boeing 737 Max jetliners.

Juanima said the family was never provided with this explanation.

Sunwing also said that the family got short notice because "operational disruptions" caused by the groundings had created a backlog.

"We recognize there was a delay in contacting these customers and continue to take measures to increase staffing to clear the backlog and increase our effectiveness in communicating updates to customers as quickly as possible," said spokesperson Jacqueline Grossman in an email to CBC News.

Airlines grounded their Max fleet in mid-March following two fatal crashes involving the model. There's still no timetable for when they'll return to service.

In March, Sunwing suggested its passengers would experience minimal impact because its four 737 Max planes make up less than 10 per cent of its fleet.

Mike Hanafin of Vancouver also found himself in limbo when Sunwing cancelled his flight to Toronto on Wednesday — nine days before departure. He was told the culprit was the 737 Max groundings.  

Like the Juanima family, he said Sunwing offered him unworkable options: he could fly four days before or after his original departure or in late July, or a get refund for tickets he bought in February at a low price. 

Hanafin responded by sending a complaint to Sunwing and the Canadian Transportation Agency. He said the airline should have planned better for an obstacle it has known about for months.

"The planes were grounded in mid-March. You've had two-plus months to get this figured out," he said.

"To be now impacting me at the end of May, to me that's not my fault, that's your fault. So you should be compensating me."

Sunwing said that, similar to other airlines, it's constantly revising its schedules in four to six week blocks while waiting for word on when the Max jetliner can be cleared for take-off.

Shortly after being contacted by CBC News about Hanafin's case, Sunwing rebooked him on an Air Canada flight on his original travel dates. 

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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