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Delayed emails, empty seats: How a digital communication breakdown may have stranded more Sunwing passengers

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More Sunwing passengers may have been stranded in tropical destinations for longer after the airline failed to fill seats on some rescue flights thanks to a digital communications breakdown, interviews and records provided to CTV News indicate.

Images from passengers on flights that returned to Canada show empty seats throughout some planes, while passengers left behind complained of notifications and emails that told them their flights were leaving hours after they had left.

“It was really strange to see such an empty flight,” said passenger Katherine Kennedy, who flew from Cancun to Toronto just before Christmas. Her bus stopped at several resorts without picking anyone up.

“We waited for people who never showed up,” she said. “Every single person had a row to themselves. The pilot apologized saying he’d never seen anything like that.”

Meanwhile, passenger Garry Forrester was waiting in his resort lobby, watching his emails, desperate for a flight home to replace his cancelled ticket from December 24. But when they came, he couldn’t believe them.

One email arrived at 3:51am, even though the flight was supposed to depart at 2:36am -- an hour and 15 minutes earlier. Another email arrived at 5:35am, even though the flight was supposed to depart at 3:20 -- two hours and 15 minutes earlier.

An almost empty Sunwing plane is seen in this undated image. (Supplied)

Forrester still doesn’t know if those emails pointed to a real flight -- but if they did, he wanted to be on it.

“I was in disbelief,” he told CTV News in an interview. “I’ve missed Christmas, I’m trapped, and they keep giving us all this false information.”

The empty seats compounded problems the airline was experiencing as a wave of cancelled flights stranded passengers, and then the already reeling airline was hit with a continent-wide massive storm. Passengers waited in the airport for a chance to get on a flight, with pictures and video showing some sleeping on the floor.

On top of that, it uses Toronto’s Terminal 3, where a baggage belt malfunction meant many bags were separated from passengers, who are still picking them up from a Mississauga warehouse.

CTV News approached cybersecurity expert Claudiu Popa, who looked at the notifications to suggest that an already strained system from the volume of cancelled flights and bumped passengers may have resulted in an outage in its computer systems.

The timing errors suggest that Sunwing’s computers may have latched onto a clock in an incorrect time zone, he said.

Luggage bags are amassed in the bag claim area at Toronto Pearson International Airport, as a major winter storm disrupts flights in and out of the airport, in Toronto, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

“If I were to receive a notification that was a few hours off, I would assume the system picked up a time from a different network time server,” he said.

CTV News approached Sunwing about why these notifications were wrong, and how often they may have happened. The company didn’t respond to those questions.

In a statement, the company said it commissioned 43 recovery flights, saying, “All scheduled recovery flights are now complete and those still in destination are rescheduling previously missed return flights, or on longer vacations and are scheduled to return at a later date per their original departure date.

“Any further rescheduling changes are unrelated to the holiday disruptions. We sincerely thank our customers for their patience and understanding as our teams worked tirelessly to restore regular operations,” the company said.

Airlines don’t have to give compensation if a flight is cancelled because of weather. Proving that the true cause is something else is up to the passenger, and that needs to change, said NDP MP Taylor Bachrach.

“Right now the burden of proof lies with the passengers, which is ridiculous. Make the burden of proof lie with the airlines and make them dig through the files and come up with evidence as to why that’s out of their control,” Bachrach said.

The digital failures of communication compounded a much wider issue facing the company as it was hit with multiple simultaneous crises, said Kennedy.

“We never received one form of communication,” she said, calling her ability to make that flight with so many empty seats a “fluke.”

“Better communication would have solved a lot of hassle for people,” she said. 

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