The airport authority has hired independent firms to help conduct a review to determine how to improve service following weather-related disruptions.

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Vancouver International Airport is promising to do better after more than 1,000 passengers were left stranded during last month’s storm and is hiring private companies to examine how it can improve service.

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However, Canadian passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs says the airport isn’t the only one to blame for widespread flight delays and cancellations that left hundreds sleeping on the facility’s floor days before Christmas.

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“Doing better in bad weather is a great objective, and I commend YVR for taking that initiative, but I’m concerned that the airlines are attempting to shift the blame to the airport,” Lukacs told Postmedia News.

The founder of the Air Passenger Rights’ group pointed to some operational problems that occurred at the airport between Dec. 19 and 25 that feel under the responsibility of the airlines, not the airport.

“Contrary to the rumours spread by airlines, YVR did not run out of de-icing fluid or fuel. YVR is being turned into a scapegoat,” Lukacs said.

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Members of the federal House of Commons transport committee called airlines representatives to a meeting Thursday to ask why so many travellers in Canada faced lengthy flight delays, cancellations and lost luggage during the holidays. Representatives from WestJet, Air Canada and Sunwing blamed extreme weather and staffing issues, and promised to enact changes in the future.

While Sunwing president Len Corrado pointed to de-icing fluid shortages as a reason for takeoff troubles at YVR, the CEO of the organization that manages the airport rebutted his claim.

“At no point did we run out of de-icing fluid or (aviation) fuel,” Tamara Vrooman said in response to a question from Chilliwack-Hope MP Mark Strahl. “Our de-icing facility and snow removal equipment were fully stood-up and operational throughout. … However, into the evening of Dec. 19, the rate of snowfall increased significantly. Aircraft that had been de-iced for takeoff were forced to turn back … aircraft filled up the gates very quickly.”

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Vrooman confirmed that airlines have the responsibility, equipment and ground crews necessary to decongest airport gates. She said passengers were stranded on the planes that could not get a gate because of the airlines’ inadequate towing capacity: “We did clear the taxiways, the runways and the aprons for towing as a priority.”

Passengers waited 12 hours on the tarmac with little to eat or drink on a WestJet flight on Dec. 19. YVR has changed its policy to ensure no other customers are held for hours aboard planes.

“We put changes in place that (now) require aircraft to be on the gate for a limited amount of time and demonstrate to us that they have the towing capacity to remove those aircraft,” Vrooman said.

She added that YVR was equipped and ready to provide food and beverages to those stuck on the aircraft but was never asked to help.

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“We certainly were constantly asking what support they needed, and airlines were saying, categorically, they needed access to the gates. And so that was our priority.”

During the committee hearing, Sunwing Airlines was singled out for not responding to hundreds of Canadian customers who were stranded in resorts for days without a flight back home. While refunds have been promised to passengers affected, Lukacs is urging Ottawa to do more to ensure companies don’t get away with violating air passenger protections.

“We have clear evidence now that the airlines failed to provide passengers with food and beverages in reasonable quantities, even though doing so would have been possible, this is a contravention of the law.”

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The maximum penalty for the violation would be a Canadian Transportation Agency fine of up to $25,000 per passenger. Since 2019, the CTA has doled out 25 fines.

Earlier Thursday, Vrooman said YVR has hired two independent firms — KPMG and Arup — to help with an “after-action” review to figure out what improvements are needed after weather-related disruptions.She said YVR will also launch a public engagement process to hear about passengers’ experiences and suggestions for improvement. Both processes will begin next week.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told MPs he’s working to support passenger rights by increasing the responsibility airlines have to compensate passengers for flight delays, cancellations and other issues, and is considering raising monetary penalties.

[email protected]

—with files from Tiffany Crawford

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