Leading up to the holidays, severe winter storms and arctic outflows across B.C. left Vancouver International Airport (airport code YVR) in a state of chaos. Airlines delayed and cancelled flights which affected thousands of passengers—some were stranded and forced to sleep in the airport for days.
While others were stuck on inbound aircrafts for hours, with some passengers waiting nearly 12 hours to disembark the aircraft. Throughout the week, lack of communication and organization from YVR airport and major airlines left passengers in a state of disarray.
Adam and Renee Souter, who were travelling with their three children for their annual ski trip, flew into Vancouver International Airport from Auckland, Australia on Saturday, December 17. They were booked on a connecting WestJet flight to Kelowna scheduled to depart on December 18. After multiple delays, their WestJet flight was canceled.
“They rebooked us back for Tuesday (December 20), which was a bit late. So, then we booked another flight on Lynx [Air] for the Monday (December 19). Then they did the same thing—they delayed, delayed, delayed, and finally canceled at 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning,” said Renee.
After their flight was cancelled, Adam and Renee went to retrieve their checked-in luggage which was supposed to be dispatched onto the baggage carousels. Past 2 a.m., Lynx Air did not provide any further baggage updates or communication. By the time they realized that they weren’t going to get their bags back, it was too late for the Souters to secure a hotel room. In the end, they spent the night at the airport until their rebooked flight at 5 p.m. the same day.
“It’s a budget airline and we understand that. It was the only airline available and you kind of get what you get—but the minimum you should get as a human is communication,” Adam said.
Nathan Drew and Jordan Hegwood, a couple who flew in from Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, found themselves in a similar situation. Drew and Hegwood were also travelling to Kelowna, B.C. via Lynx Air. While the couple was lucky enough to find a hotel room, they said that it was nearly impossible to leave the airport. With the SkyTrain out of service due to the cold weather, they’re only options were Uber or cab. The minimum wait time for a cab was an hour and a half, leaving Drew and Hegwood along with other delayed passengers to wait out in the cold.
“The day before that we had to pay $100 just to get an Uber—that was for a 12-minute drive. It was ridiculous money just to get where we had to get to,” added Hegwood.
Just like the Souters, Drew and Hegwood were unable to retrieve their bags.
Then there were passengers who were trapped in aircrafts for hours. In the case of Cheuknam Ho, he was travelling on an Air Canada flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver, a long-haul flight that is about 11 hours and 30 minutes long. Upon landing, there were no gates available for the aircraft.
“I landed in Vancouver and stayed in the plane for more than five hours—just to wait to get to the gate,” said Ho.
While stuck on the aircraft, Ho said he tried to ask the Air Canada flight crew for more information, but they couldn’t provide any.
Along with the lack of communication, passengers questioned whether or not Vancouver International Airport was properly prepared for heavy snowfall conditions. Adam and Renee expressed that YVR airport should have better contingency plans in place.
“At least for me, just being better prepared for weather phenomena in the area. At least from what I’ve been hearing from people here is that Vancouver’s not prepared at all for any sort of snow—and they’re in Canada. I know it doesn’t happen often here, but you need something in place,” said Drew.
Adam also questioned how the flight cancellations and heavy snowfall was handled by both airlines and YVR airport authority.
“It’s unusual because of the snow, but then it’s how it’s managed and I don’t think it was managed very well. It sounds like there’s increasing amounts of big snow here and it doesn’t wash away as quickly as it used to. Maybe they need to just resource it better or have better contingencies for it,” said Adam.
An email statement from Air Canada noted that they are continuing to monitor the weather situations across Canada and even pre-cancelled flights on Friday, December 23 in response to extreme weather warnings in eastern Canada. WestJet has also taken precautionary measures and pre-cancelled flights.
“The decision to stand down more flights was extremely difficult, but it was necessary, so that we could be best prepared to safely fly as many guests, with as little disruption as possible this weekend,” said WestJet’s chief operations officer, Diederik Pen in a media statement.
Understanding air passenger rights
Gábor Lukács, president and founder of Air Passenger Rights, was closely watching the events unfold, observing a lack of accountability—especially from the major airlines like West Jet and Air Canada.
“Obviously airlines don’t control the weather. That’s not their fault. Even as a bloodthirsty air passenger advocate like myself would not hold them accountable for that. That’s not reasonable—how they react to the weather is a different matter,” said Lukács.
Two major issues that Lukács noticed concerned flight rebookings and tarmac delays. According to the Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR), when a flight cancellation or delay occurs and is outside of an airline’s control (such as weather conditions), delayed passengers must be booked on the next available flight operated by the airline itself or any of its commercial partners. The flight must fall within 48 hours of the passenger’s original departure time. If an airline is unable to book a flight within that time frame, they must get the passenger to their destination at all costs even if it means booking a ticket with a competing airline.
“That was not happening. WestJet was just telling people to take a flying leap—telling them, ‘well sorry, we’re not able to rebook you. Goodbye,’” said Lukács.
Furthermore, for flight cancellations and delays caused by weather conditions, the APPR does not require airlines to provide compensation—this means that the airlines are not obligated to provide food vouchers or overnight accommodations to affected passengers.
Then there were the numerous and lengthy tarmac delays. The APPR states that once a tarmac delay reaches three hours, the airline must allow passengers to disembark the aircraft. Airlines are allotted an extra 45 minutes if it is likely that the flight will take-off. At YVR Airport, tarmac delays lasted nearly 12 hours.
“I have seen a lot of fingers pointed to the Vancouver Airport. Airlines love to blame the airports because that means, ‘oh, it wasn’t us, it’s them,” Lukács said.
“The decision to board passengers, to leave the gate without having a backup plan of what happens if it’s not possible to take off—for whatever legitimate reasons, that’s the airline’s decision. The airline decided to keep passengers on the tarmac for that long. I don’t see any evidence that they have been going out of their way to try to get stairs to the aircraft that they failed to provide food and water to passengers on board.”
With multiple tarmac delays, ongoing investigations by the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) are currently underway. At this time, the CTA is unable to confirm when the investigations will be complete.
With little repercussions for airlines, Lukács said it’s important for passengers to understand their rights and to take action when those rights are violated.
“The most important advice is don’t be a pushover. Stand up for your rights and fight for your rights. Take airlines to small claims court. Don’t let them get away with this,” said Lukács.
YVR International Airport extending care for passengers, too late for some
On Friday December 23, YVR International Airport announced that their staff will be extending care and comfort services for delayed passengers. Passengers affected by overnight delays were offered up to four nights free-of-charge at local hotels and restaurant gift cards. These hotel accommodations and meal vouchers were offered until December 27.
“Our primary focus is to safely get passengers on their journey. When extreme weather disrupts those plans for extended periods of time, we understand that passengers face immense challenges–especially if they don’t call Vancouver home,” said Tamara Vrooman, president and CEO of Vancouver International Airport.
For delayed passengers who remain at the airport, YVR airport set up a designated resting area on Level 3 departures. It was set up with cots, blankets, hygiene kits and other basic supplies. Additionally, YVR staff and volunteers were distributing food, water, hand-warmers and other items throughout the airport.
As for passengers who were travelling before these measures were put in place, this offer of goodwill comes way too late as many have already moved on.
After five nights in Vancouver, the Souter family opted to take a shuttle bus to Kelowna, rather than taking their chances flying again. For future trips, Adam and Renee plan to avoid YVR International Airport altogether.
Drew and Hegwood were rebooked on a recovery flight by Lynx Air and finally arrived in Kelowna, B.C. early afternoon on Wednesday, December 22. Although the couple is relieved that they made it to their final destination, they are left without their checked-in luggage and personal belongings. Tracked by an Apple Tag, Drew and Hegwood’s luggage remained in Vancouver Airport.
According to YVR International Airport’s latest operational update on December 30, the airport was back on track with about 97 per cent of scheduled flights operational. As the weather continued to improve, YVR airport said they were sending passengers on their way. In the meantime, YVR’s designated comfort area was been extended and was available to delayed passengers until January 3.
Lynx Air did not reply to rabble’s request for an interview by the time of publication.