Thursday, 29 December 2022

Oh the Weather Outside is Frightful

Where to begin with the brutal delays and disappointing cancellations that have hit this holiday season?  So much "news" and social media has been swirling and tempers flaring over the unfathomable number of travel disruptions that have been experienced over the past 8 days.

Would-be travellers were so looking forward to once again being able to board planes and whisk off to exciting destinations for the holiday season or travelling home to see family and friends for what should have been one of the first Christmas gatherings in the past few years due to pandemic restrictions.  Then, WHAM-O!  

Environment Canada is predicting extreme snow fall warnings for the west coast which materialize and cripple not just the the City of Vancouver but much of the province.  Keep in mind that while Vancouver often does experience snow, never is it the icy, heavy, wet, volumes that fell this past week.  It left people all throughout the lower mainland grappling.

This was the start of a downward spiral throughout the country and it triggered massive airline cancellations and delays which eventually led to all inbound and outbound flights in YVR being at a complete standstill.  In some areas, roads were impassable.  Airline crew could not make it to the airport to work at the check-in counters, or to board flights.  Incoming crew that were to continue on to further destinations were stranded, just like passengers, at mid way points on route.  Airport staff such as cleaning crew, food vendors, baggage handlers faced the same fate.  And, just as there were signs of recovery at the YVR airport, Environment Canada again predicted more severe weather to sweep across the country into Ontario and Quebec.

Freezing rain and high winds, downed trees and power lines gripped much of eastern Canada. The Niagara region had declared a State of Emergency with blizzard conditions and zero visibility.  50,000 Ontario customers were without power.  Via Rail trains were halted due to the unsafe conditions. An additional 151,000 in Quebec were without hydro for 2 days and longer.  New Brunswick contended with one of the largest power outages in a a decade with 70,000 customers in the dark.  Essentially, the only provinces without weather warnings or special weather statements were Nova Scotia, Nunavet and Manitoba which lead to disbelief for travellers departing from those areas. 

And these extreme weather events were not only in Canada.  Oh no!  Mother Nature asserted her authority elsewhere too! Much of the USA experienced a similar fate wreaking havoc with Southwest Airlines at major gateways from Denver, Chicago, Phoenix creating a domino affect across the country and a major computer failure due to the antiquated software not being able to manage the endless volume of changes.  Delta Airlines, American Airlines and United all saw a higher than usual number of cancellations.

Here in Canada, Westjet, at last count, cancelled more than 1400 flights.  To add insult to injury, the baggage belt at Toronto Pearson Terminal 3 broke down and has been causing a mountain of displaced luggage mostly for Sunwing passengers.  The baggage loading equipment is frozen (literally encrusted in ice).  The issue compounded and all culminate into one massive &@!%show across the country giving a new definition to #ThePerfectStorm.

I truly feel for those passengers who have been misplaced and find themselves with delay after delay or cancelled travel plans.  It's a busy time of year and this is the very last thing anyone would hope for. The disappointment would be terrible but this is a unique situation that no one has control over. Anyone who knows me would understand the lengths I will go through to support and assist a client.  Christmas morning I was trying to do just that.  In this case, I do feel there is an education piece that is missing.  Rarely do I side with an airline or tour operator but these are extreme weather events hitting 3 of the major hubs in the country and very much out of the control of the airline. There!  I said it!  Not what the travelling public wants to hear but I'm nothing if not a straight shooter.  Allow me to slightly temper that with the fact that I'm speaking in general.  Some situations across Canada are not attributed to the weather but the large majority are.

From an travel agency stand point, we proactively reached out to all clients with travel planned up to the 27 Dec to advise about likely delays.  We handled frustrated, disappointed and in some cases, tearful clients when the calls, emails and text messages began arriving on Christmas Eve, in the middle of the night, Christmas Day, and beyond.  We did out absolute best to re-accommodate were possible, reschedule, cancel, process refunds, and rebook. There were some success stories but not nearly as many as I would have liked. While it was far from perfect for so many of our clients, I'm proud of my team and their efforts to make it the best it could be and ease just a little bit of the stress.

 All of this does not negate in any way the crushing disappointment in missing out on the planned travel experience - be that a European adventure, a multi-generational beach vacation with family, travelling to the next door province to spend the Holidays with loved ones.  Many had planned and booked well in advance so to have the rug pulled out from under them was devastating.  Many drove to alternate airports to re-unite with loved ones and while inconvenient and terrible winter driving conditions prevailed, they were the lucky ones. Thankfully, cancellation and interruption insurance is designed for these exact kind of situations. No, it doesn't give you the holiday you had planned but it does protect your financial investment and if you were one of those in destination unable to return as scheduled, it pays for your additional hotel nights, food and transfer expenses.  Rather than camping out on the floor at the Cancun airport, they could be sitting beachside with a margarita in hand trying to make the best of a bad situation.  Of course, it's never quite as simple as it sounds but it's these very situations that interruption insurance was designed for.  Insurance is a very important aspect of any travel itinerary and while one may think they don't need it, we urge you to consider the events of the past week+ (or the pandemic itself) and the many ways it could have helped.  Who would think any of this could happen? No one plans to take ill, for there to be road closures, for a death in the family, for a fire to your home or any number of other causes for cancellation, but they do happen. 

Now, that said, refunds are being processed by the airlines and tour operators even for those without insurance coverage but let's be clear...this is not a given.  Airlines do not have to refund in many cases such as weather related delays/cancellations, but they have done so and I commend them for that.  I'm fairly certain that saying they don't need to do refund will be an unpopular statement but the fact of the matter is it's true.

While the Winnipeg weather may have been nothing like what was experienced elsewhere in Canada, flight crew could not "commute" to their starting points.  For example, a flight attendant or pilot may live in Calgary but be scheduled to start their assignment in Saskatoon.  They would board a flight in Calgary and move within the system network to get to Saskatoon.  When the flights are grounded in some locations, it's impossible for the crew to get were they need to be.  Then, with the delays, often they would time out after sitting in cities for longer durations that had been intended.  Add to that, reservation and customer service staff at the airlines and throughout the airports could not make it to work due to treacherous road conditions or their home being without power and facing possibly freezing pipes.  Many crew were also stranded in airports missing the Holidays with their own families too because they too could not get back home or where they were intended to go or possibly timed out of their duty making then un able to continue on.  Those checks and balances are in place for safety reasons.

I would be remiss if I didn't address the lack of communication from the airlines to the travelling public.  Yes, it was a complete shmozzle!  No other way to say it.  Passengers had no idea when they were getting home or departing, flight times kept changing and it was long hold time to contact the airlines.  All of this is true and contributed to the chaos and confusion.  Airlines need to do better, of that I have no doubt.  That said, Mother Nature didn't exactly pin point a time that her wrath and fury would subside either so it's slightly more complex than just saying there is a need for communication and updating passengers.  

Christmas has come and gone - a disappointment for far too many.  Some are still awaiting return flights to Canada from various destinations and while the network is improving, we know we sit on pins and needles awaiting the next shoe to drop. A rainfall warning which may leave to ongoing flood hazards is very much a real possibility in BC and parts of Ontario, so we are not yet out of the woods, although we are in much better shape than a week ago.

From this blog, my hope is that the travelling public can be a bit more understanding of the devastating cascading effect that a weather event has on an airline and cast the blame where it belongs in this specific case - Mother Nature.