Unprecedented snowfall in Calgary and Yellowknife's aurora season created a perfect storm for visitors who ended up stranded in the NWT.
Calgary received a record dump of snow on Tuesday, up to 34 centimetres in places, leading to the cancellation of a Tuesday afternoon Yellowknife-Calgary flight operated by Air Canada partner Jazz.
Passengers told Cabin Radio they were handed a $10 food voucher valid only at the airport, provided no assistance with accommodation, and told they could not be rebooked on a flight out of Yellowknife until Sunday – an extraordinary five-day wait.
"We were basically S–O–L. It was up to us," said passenger Sarah Hahn, characterizing the airline's approach. "We are responsible for ourselves, and they wouldn't do anything for us."
Contacted by Cabin Radio on Wednesday to ask how it would support marooned passengers, Air Canada said it would now operate an additional flight on Thursday from Yellowknife to Calgary.
'They don't have anything'
By Wednesday lunchtime, Hahn and her colleagues – Mark Paddey and Amanda O'Connor – possessed no such information from Air Canada, and had already felt obliged to make new arrangements for their return home to Toronto.
Through a third-party travel agent, Hahn secured a seat on a Wednesday evening flight. Paddey and O'Connor were booked on Friday departures.
"When we talked to Air Canada, their line was essentially: 'We don’t have anything available for you until Sunday at the very earliest,'" Paddey told Cabin Radio.
Hahn added: "They sent us an email today [Wednesday], after the fact, saying they were unable to rebook us."
An Air Canada email provided to Cabin Radio by Hahn states plainly: "Unfortunately, we were unable to rebook you on another flight." The email invites Hahn to rebook online or cancel her trip entirely, and makes no mention of accommodation support.
Air Canada's policy dictates that when cancellations are out of the airline's control – such as Tuesday's severe weather – passengers are not automatically entitled to assistance with accommodation.
Wait for storm to pass
September and October are among the peak months for aurora tourists visiting Yellowknife, meaning both flights and hotels can operate near to capacity.
"With the state of things in town right now, we had to call around before we could actually find a hotel with any rooms available," said Paddey. The three colleagues were sharing a room at the Days Inn.
Angela Mah, a spokesperson for Air Canada, told Cabin Radio Tuesday's flight had been cancelled "due to the unprecedented winter storm" in Calgary and said the airline's objective "always is to get customers safely on their way as soon as possible."
"In the aftermath of a severe storm such what Calgary experienced," Mah wrote by email, "we’re only able to finalize plans for additional flights – assign an aircraft, and a crew to operate – after the storm is over and we determine where the requirements for additional seats are."
Mah said Air Canada would operate additional flights between Calgary and Yellowknife on Thursday, and affected customers were being advised using the contact information they initially provided with their booking.
The extra flights should see passengers on their way two days after their planned departure, instead of five. However, Paddey said late on Wednesday he was unaware of any extra flight and neither he nor his colleagues had received any notification.
"We haven't heard anything," he said by text message.
According to flight tracking website FlightAware, Tuesday afternoon's Air Canada Jazz departure to Calgary was the only cancellation at Yellowknife Airport that day.
It's not clear how many passengers were affected, though the flight can be assumed to have been near capacity given other flights were fully booked. The aircraft usually used to operate the route can accommodate around 70 to 90 passengers, depending on their exact variant.
Paddey remained unimpressed by passengers' initial treatment.
"They’re not going to pay for our accommodations or anything, and all we get is a $10 meal voucher," he said.