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Canadian Transportation Agency investigating Sunwing after receiving 89 complaints involving 23 flights

Lyndsay Burke-Sholer, left, filed a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency after flying Sunwing from Jamaica to Toronto and spending more than five hours on the tarmac. (Lyndsay Burke-Sholer)

After receiving 89 complaints involving 23 recent Sunwing flights, the Canadian Transportation Agency has launched a formal inquiry into the airline's treatment of passengers. 

The complaints cover a period from April 14 to 18, during which Toronto was hit with an ice storm and Swissport, the company that handles Sunwing's baggage and gate operations, was significantly short-staffed.

The staffing problems led to a barrage of problems for Sunwing passengers, including harrowing waits of up to six hours on planes sitting on the tarmac in Toronto, baggage missing for more than a week and flight delays and cancellations.

The CTA recently hit Air Transat, a competitor airline, with a big fine after passenger complaints about long tarmac delays in July.

Sunwing told CBC News in an email that it recognizes it "fell short" and looks forward to working with the CTA during the inquiry so that "corrective actions can be implemented."

Sunwing passenger Mary Martino filed a complaint with the CTA last week after flying home from Aruba on April 15. She says her plane was delayed on the tarmac in Toronto for six hours.

"I'm traumatized and haven't gotten over it," she said. "After four hours everyone was starting to get crazy."

She says one passenger became sick, adding to the chaos. "She started at first gagging, and then she started flat-out vomiting."

Martino says passengers were only allowed to leave after someone called 911, and the person who fell ill was taken away in an ambulance.

"Imagine we had to call 911 to get off a Sunwing plane."

Air Transat fined $295,000

In July, Air Transat passengers endured a similar experience when two of the airline's planes were stranded on the tarmac at Ottawa's airport for up to six hours.

In November, the CTA fined Air Transat $295,000, determining that it broke its agreement with passengers by not offering them food and drink or the chance to disembark.

Rules to protect air travellers during onboard delays will be included in a national passenger bill of rights set to take effect this year.

According to Sunwing's own rules, when delayed on the tarmac, the airline will offer drinks and snacks, and let passengers disembark after 90 minutes if it is safe and practical to do so.

Martino says the crew offered no food, just water — after passengers had already been sitting on the plane for about three hours.

"Give us a cracker, give us something. They would not budge."

She also says she informed the crew about the 90-minute rule about two hours into the delay. "They just completely ignored me," she said. "They did nothing for our comfort or anything."

Sunwing passenger Lyndsay Burke-Sholer says she had a similar experience after flying from Jamaica to Toronto on April 15. She says her plane sat on the tarmac in Toronto for more than five hours.

"It was complete hell. I saw people hyperventilating, kids were crying."

She says the crew offered no food and only provided drinks more than three hours into their delay.

"I felt like a hostage," said Burke-Sholer who also filed a complaint with the CTA last week.

The long waits weren't just confined to the tarmac. Amir Khajavi says his April 15 Sunwing flight from Toronto to Cancun was delayed for more than 14 hours. After waiting 12 hours, he started shooting video of the scene at the flight's gate at the Toronto airport. 

In the video, one woman begs for her medication which is in her checked bag, and a mom complains that she's run out of diapers for her three-year-old. Meanwhile, police keep watch over angry and frustrated passengers. 

"It was like mentally torturous for everybody," said Khajavi. "People got crazy and got so mad that somebody had to call the cops." 

Lost baggage was also a problem that weekend, and some Sunwing passengers still haven't received their bags.

Mario Stojanac and Mary Luz Mejia flew from the Dominican Republic to Toronto on April 14. Twelve days later, they're still waiting for their two suitcases to arrive. 

"How is that a reasonable approach for paid services?" said Mejia. "It's not acceptable."

Sunwing agrees it's not acceptable. "We share the concerns expressed by our customers," said spokesperson Jacqueline Grossman. "We would like to reiterate our sincere apology to all customers affected."

She said the CTA inquiry will help the airline improve its services to prevent these types of mishaps from happening again.

Sunwing has also offered passengers compensation for their troubles. Stojanac and Mejia each received a $100 travel voucher which they believe is inadequate. 

Martino received an $800 refund from the airline, but says she's still pursuing her CTA complaint in the hopes that no passenger will endure what she went through.

"I don't want them to do it again."