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Airline executives testify over travel chaos

Officials from Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing appeared Thursday in the House of Commons Transportation, Infrastructure and Communities to testify about the chaos that left many Canadians scrambling to get their travel plans back on track.

"Our preparation efforts began in early fall for this winter's peak season, holding weekly meetings, tracking our readiness towards the peak. What we could not have anticipated in this preparation was the compounding scale of weather events we encountered in our system between Dec. 18 and Dec. 24," said Scott Wilson, WestJet's vice president of flight operations.

"In my 22 years at WestJet, this was the most significant weather-induced outage I have ever experienced. Canadian airlines have some of the most significant experience with cold weather and winter operations. Mother Nature, however, always has the ability to show us where our limits are."

The passengers most affected by the holiday season travel disruptions were those of Sunwings Airlines, its president, Len Conrrado, appeared before the parliamentary committee today to give his face:

These challenges were compounded by infrastructure issues at the airports, such as failures in the baggage belt operating system at Toronto Pearson and a shortage of ice-melting salt at Vancouver. I also want to explain that our model does not work the same as other airlines, 95% of our customers buy their flights as part of vacation packages tied to their stay and our peak season is in winter, which coincided with the storm. Unlike other airlines, we do not have the flexibility to adjust our schedules and passenger itineraries, because we always have passengers in our southern destinations waiting on a tight schedule to return to Canada. That said, we know we could have done better, even when it is just one customer affected we consider it a failure. we want to assure the committee and Canadians that we are committed to providing the quality service that is expected of us.

Sunwing Airlines alone has received more than 7,000 complaints following Christmas travel.

Thursday's meeting is the first in what is expected to be a series of hearings the transportation committee will hold on the festive chaos. MPs on the committee are investigating lengthy travel delays and the treatment of thousands of air and rail passengers who faced cancellations and rescheduled journeys.

While severe storms across the country were a major factor, the committee is investigating how the air and rail industries could better prepare for worsening winter conditions and improve their customer relations services, and whether the government is adequately protecting travelers facing disruptions to their plans.

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