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Lost luggage still clogs some Canadian airports after chaotic holiday travel week

Eight days after Toronto aeronautical engineer Parham Zabeti was due to fly to a family reunion, he’s still in Toronto, still searching for the bag he checked in.

The 40-year-old paid $517 for an Air Canada ticket to Cincinnati, Ohio, to visit his brother and then head to Florida to join his mother and other relatives. He arrived at Pearson International Airport on December 22nd with plenty of time left before his flight. The plane took off with a little delay but was turned around due to a snow storm.

The seemingly straightforward journey turned into a 10-hour ordeal, ending in Toronto, where Zabeti and other passengers waited to collect their luggage after the flight landed around midnight.

His luggage never showed up. No explanations were offered. His journey was practically over.

Zabeti’s missing suitcase is full of gifts for family members who traveled to Florida from Iran and Vancouver for a reunion. It’s one of thousands of bags owned by other frustrated travelers.

Suitcases, duffel bags and car seats are lined up in baggage storage areas at Canadian airports after weather and staffing problems caused hundreds of flights to be delayed or canceled and left some passengers stranded at airports or stuck for hours on stationary planes during the Christmas holidays.

Baggage is lined up after holiday traffic jam in YVR on December 29th
Hundreds of suitcases are waiting to be reunited with their owners at Vancouver International Airport on Thursday. (Justine Boulin/CBC)

Sunwing Airlines left many stranded in popular sunny destinations. Passengers say incomplete or inaccurate information about the status of their flights made the situation worse.

On Friday, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre said the chaos at the airport during the holiday season was unacceptable. He noted that with 30,000 complaints and an 18-month backlog in the Canadian Transportation Agency’s complaints process, there isn’t much compensation if something goes wrong with air travel in Canada.

Poilievre and many passengers are calling for stricter rules and a toothy federal agency that can hold airlines accountable.

“[Trudeau] currently blames the snow, but in the summer there was no snow and in the summer there was chaos at our airports,” said Poilievre.

A statement released on Friday by the Office of Transport Secretary Omar Alghabra called out Sunwing Airlines and assured Canadians the government was working to remedy the “frustrating” situation.

“Sunwing Airlines’ situation is totally unacceptable… We expect all airlines to communicate with passengers and keep them informed of any delays or cancellations,” the statement said.

The travel nightmare before Christmas

Vancouver’s airport still hasn’t recovered from severe winter weather earlier this week, which has led to a chain reaction of flight delays and cancellations across Canada. The airport’s CEO says things are improving, but not fast enough for some travelers.

Airports are now dealing with crowds of people trying to locate luggage days after their canceled flights. Some drive for hours while others, like Zabeti, have no vehicle or direct way to return to the airport to search for lost bags.

Air Canada said in a statement it was working hard to reunite people with their bags and was making “good progress”.

Alyssa Smith, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Airport Authority, on Thursday showed CBC partitions being erected to securely store about 2,500 unclaimed bags at Vancouver International Airport.

She said travelers with missing luggage would need to file a lost luggage claim with the airline. They can also show up at the airport with their luggage tags and plane ticket, and staff will accompany them to the now-protected areas to search for their bags.

A yvr speaker stands near white walls and hides 2,500 lost bags.
Alyssa Smith, communications manager for the Vancouver Airport Authority, is shown Thursday near a makeshift wall erected at YVR to safely store about 2,500 unclaimed bags. (Joel Law/CBC News)

“It’s an unfortunate situation for travelers, especially at this time of year. We’re doing everything we can to sort and organize and work to get people to reunite their bags,” Smith said.

Baggage congestion at many Canadian airports is the result of weather problems that began on December 20th.

Both Montreal and Toronto airports said baggage is the airlines’ authority and declined to comment further.

“Airlines are responsible for their flight schedules, including delays and cancellations, as well as baggage handling upon arrival of the planes. They have been actively working on baggage delivery,” said Eric Forest, a spokesman for Aéroports de Montréal.

According to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), airlines can be held liable for up to approximately $2,300 for lost or damaged luggage. Claims must be submitted within 21 days for delayed baggage and within 7 days for damaged baggage.

However, for many passengers there is no compensation for a missed holiday.

Zabeti still has no idea where his lost bag might be or if he will see it again. The only communication he received from Air Canada was a form email and a text message about a $200 coupon to redeem for another flight.

He ended up joining his family via video chat at the Florida gathering and was brought to tears by tributes to his niece and nephew – and the thought that he’d missed a visit to his aging mother, who lives in Vancouver.

An uncle hugs his niece and nephew over a chocolate birthday cake.
Parham Zabeti celebrates his 40th birthday with his niece and nephew in Toronto in the summer of 2022. (Aram Zabeti)

“My mom is about 80 years old … you never know when you’ll see her next,” he said.

“This is ridiculous and painful… Why would a passenger trust Air Canada at this point?”

Bags lost in the “Abyss”.

At Pearson International Airport, the concourses have been cleared of lost baggage, but the problem persists. The airlines just moved the bags to another location for storage until they are reunited with their owners.

Paul Martin was near the airport Thursday trying to get bags from Sunwing Airlines for his sister-in-law, who had made it to Cancun on a Dec. 24 flight but whose luggage didn’t make it.

“The bag is somewhere in the abyss,” he said.

“Americans had a similar problem – but they’re recovering faster. Government, you need to look at this and make some changes.”

In an email to CBC, Sunwing Airlines detailed the myriad of challenges affecting customers at Toronto Airport December 24-27.

“Every effort will be made to reunite customers with baggage that may have been left at Toronto Pearson due to the recent mechanical issues with the baggage carousels in Terminal 3, an issue that has affected all airlines operating out of the terminal.”

Sunwing told customers whose luggage didn’t arrive with them on vacation to wait for instructions on how to retrieve their luggage when they returned.

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