December 2022 was as one of the most challenging and frustrating travel periods in Canada and the US. If flight disruptions didn’t directly impact you, you likely know someone impacted. The media spoke for days about delays, massive cancellations, and passenger rights. So what happened?
I can’t explain how every situation played out, and I won’t make excuses, but I can share some content.
I may be acting very Canadian when I say sorry, but I mean it. I’m sorry if flight disruptions impacting your holiday travel. I am joined by tens of thousands of crew members, ground staff, call center agents, and third-party service providers that work every day to get you where you need to go safely. If you can get anything from this post, understand that we, the aviation professionals, want you to have a safe and positive experience. Our jobs depend on it!
Looking for flight disruption tips?
Scroll down for flight disruption tips and tools to take the pain out of any delay.
The weather problems started in mid-December when the prairie provinces (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba) experienced some bone-chilling cold temperatures. Now, anyone from these provinces is used to cold weather, but this was much colder and longer than normal. The cold weather can impact the airplanes and staff suffer while loading, fueling, and repairing aircraft outside.
As the extreme cold weather began to ease in the prairies, a significant snow event began in Vancouver. Any amount of snow in Vancouver can cause disruption, but the volume and speed of the snow caught Vancouver off guard. No pilot is going to depart into unsafe conditions, but it is foreseeable that occasionally while moving to the runway, the pilots reassess and say it’s best to go back to the gate. The problem is there was so much snow and a lack of airport snow-clearing equipment that many aircraft could not get to a gate for hours.
Wind and ice
At this point, the airlines were really beginning to struggle under the strain of two major weather events in two large geographic areas. On December 23, a shortish but significant snow and wind storm hit Toronto, causing even more cancellations and delays.
Staffing and airplanes
This is a tough one. It’s easy to say, “there’s not enough staff,” but there is much more to this. The spring and summer of 2022 saw travel demand skyrocket and staffing levels at airports and airlines struggle to keep up. There is no denying staffing impacted flights in the spring and summer of 2022. Aviation is a tough business with tight margins, especially in Canada. The consumer is already paying a lot in fares, airport fees, navigation fees, security fees, and tax. Airlines, airports, and other aviation service providers keep their operations lean while having contingencies in place.
Call in the spares.
When flight disruptions hit airlines have spare crews and planes ready to go. But it takes time to get a “rescue flight” in the air, and there are limitations on what it can accomplish during major disruptions. Where there are major disruptions, crew and aircraft can find themselves “out of sync” with the operation.
Let’s say an aircraft with two pilots and four flight attendants is flying from Toronto to Vancouver. Before reaching Vancouver, the aircraft diverts to Calgary because of the weather. When they land in Calgary, the two pilots run out of duty and are required to end their day. There is an airplane, six crew, and a plane full of people in the wrong location.
If the aircraft had made it to Vancouver, the original pilots were scheduled to switch out with new pilots and the plane was scheduled to return to Toronto with the same flight attendants. Since the flight never made it to Vancouver, the flight to Toronto also gets cancelled.
Both sets of pilots, the aircraft, the flight attendants, and hundreds of passengers are now in the wrong location, all because of one flight disruption. This chain reaction keeps rolling until it can be broken.
The chain reaction can be broken with spare crew, spare aircraft, and rescue flights. But these extra resources don’t come from an endless supply, so there is always a limit. Sometimes there is just not enough resources to break the chain reaction.
December is a busy travel time, with many travelling to see loved ones for the holidays. Airlines and airports adapt to this demand by adding capacity. Even with this added capacity, load factors are high. This means that even though there may be more flights, most of the flights are nearly full. So, if a flight is impacted by a lengthy delay that causes misconnections later in the day or outright cancellations, there are fewer options to re-accommodate passengers.
Travel disruption survival tips
Regardless of the reason, if your travel plans were disrupted or ruined in December, you could have missed special time with family, beach time at the resort, or suffered financial hardship finding hotels in cities you had no plans of being in.
Passengers on Canadian airlines are protected by certain rights and may be eligible for expense reimbursement or compensation if the disruption is within the airline’s control. Start by visiting your airline’s website and looking for a page on passenger rights. You should be able to make a claim right from the page. Airlines will assess your travel disruption and determine if it was within their control. If you are unsatisfied with the airline’s assessment, you can ask the Canadian Transportation Agency to review your case. Keep in mind, airlines are only responsible for controllable delays.
If you purchased your travel with a major credit card, your trip might be covered by insurance that helps cover expenses incurred that are not covered by an airline. Coverage varies between different cards, but most coverage will help with lost baggage, hotel costs, and food. If you don’t have your insurance details on hand, you can Google your credit card and include the term “travel insurance.” Be careful to understand what you need to do to make a claim. Most insurance claims need to be made in a certain time frame, and documentation will be needed.
If you purchased travel insurance, consider the terms and conditions. If you need to make a claim, make sure you keep careful records and follow the steps outlined in your policy.
Remember, most travel insurance policies have limits, so don’t be surprised if only a portion is covered.
It may be too late now, but if you need to travel again during a busy season, consider direct flights. They may be a bit more expensive or fly at less desirable times, but there are fewer chances of arriving at your destination without delays and with your baggage.
If you book with a travel agent, they can help make changes to your itinerary without talking to the airlines. During major disruptions, airline call centers get bogged down, and you may have to wait on hold for a long time. Travel agents are pros at handling changes and have many tools that could help get you back on track. Be careful, though. Large travel agencies may also get bogged down during major disruptions. Also, ask your travel agent how you can contact them after normal business hours and during holidays.
Pro Tip: I got this tip from a customer service agent and it’s all about communication. If you are using a travel agent, make sure they include your email and phone number on the reservation. Airlines send out lots of reminders and updates. If those updates go to your travel agent and not you, they are not much help! You may be able to add your contact information during check-in or ask a customer service agent at the airport.
This is no different than travelling by car, boat, train, or plane when it comes to bad weather in Canada. We are all at the mercy of the weather.
- Mentally be prepared for long days.
- Try to be rested before you start travelling; don’t party all night before a flight.
- Plan to bring or buy food. Don’t forget, airport food is pricy. You can bring most foods through security, and most airports have water bottle filling stations. Find a travel-ready water bottle.
- If you travel with kids, ensure you bring things to keep them entertained. Find kid-friendly travel games.
- If you have medications, never put them in your checked luggage.
- Power outlets may be hard to find even at some major airports, so consider bringing a battery pack. Find a travel-friendly power bank.
- Wear appropriate clothes. Even if you are going down south, have some appropriate clothes with you, just in case you get stuck somewhere cold. This is a safety issue, too. If you ever need to evacuate an airline on a winter’s night, you may find the tank top, shorts, and flip-flops a little chilly.
I know you’re mad, but please be kind to the front-line staff. They don’t want to ruin your vacation and will work to get you on your way quickly, but sometimes there is simply nothing they can do. You can be mad at the weather, the airports, and the airlines, but remember, the people you speak with at the airport or on the phone have no control over many of the variables. You can be mad and respectful at the same time. It goes a long way to acknowledge how difficult the situation is when interacting with front-line staff.
Have you survived an epic travel disruption? Let me know below, and tell us how you made it through in one piece!