For years, consumers lamented the cost of air travel in Canada. But now that Canadian no-frill airlines are a thing, their takeoff is proving rougher than many expected.
Carolina Ayala was one of the hundreds of Swoop passengers affected by the low-cost carrier’s decision to cancel 23 flights between July 5 and July 10 due to unscheduled maintenance on one of its aircraft. Ayala, who was supposed to fly back to Hamilton from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on July 8, said the airline told her the night before her flight — a Sunday evening — that she’d been re-booked on a flight leaving a whopping four days later, on July 12.
“That’s just ridiculous,” Ayala said.
Waiting that long wasn’t an option for Ayala, who was due to start a new job in Toronto. But when she tried to contact the airline’s customer service, she couldn’t reach anyone over the phone on the weekend, she said.
In the end, Ayala had to pay $731 out-of-pocket for an Air Canada flight to Toronto that was nearly four times more expensive than the $191 she’d paid for her original return ticket on Swoop.
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The company was quick to refund Ayala for her unused part of the booking, but it wasn’t until July 15, after she had spoken with Global News, that the airline also extended an offer to reimburse the cost difference for the Air Canada ticket.
“We have already identified the need for additional traveller support in our contact centre and acknowledge the volume of correspondence required during this event has had a significant impact to our response time,” Swoop said. “Affected travellers were re-booked on the next available Swoop flight and we worked on a case-by-case basis thereafter on alternate arrangements if the new flight time provided was not suitable,” the company said.
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Last-minute changes at Flair Airlines have also left some passengers scrambling. In February, for example, the ultra-low-cost carrier announced it was suspending seasonal flights to Florida and California earlier than expected.
The Edmonton-based airline attributed the decision to the unravelling of an agreement with a third-party airline as well as disappointing passenger booking volume.
“We are in the process of contacting all affected passengers and providing them with full refunds or, for those who have already started their journey, alternative travel arrangements on other airlines,” the airline told Global News in February.
But some Flair travellers have also complained about the airline’s customer service. Last year, for example, it took Colleen Shickluna, of Port Aux Basques, N.L., more than two months to obtain a refund for the $130 cab ride she had to take to Hamilton from Toronto after her Flair flight was rerouted away from its original destination.
Shickluna said she received the reimbursement after Global News published an article telling her story and that of other disgruntled Flair passengers.
At the time, Flair provided the following statement: “We apologize to any person that has not received reimbursement or a refund to what was promised or owed to them, after acknowledgment of a receipt. In May of this year, we made significant improvements to our systems and processes; enabling us to optimize our customer experience. We deeply regret if individuals are awaiting resolution, and will prioritize and address their concerns on an individual basis.”
Challenges are typical of start-up airlines — not of low-cost airlines
When Ayala took to Twitter to reach out to Swoop about her return flight being re-booked four days later, she was told by another user that, “you get what you paid for.”
Other disgruntled Swoop customers got a similar reaction:
But aviation expert John Korenic rejects the notion that flying with a no-frill airline inherently comes with a higher risk of aggravation. The issue isn’t that Swoop and Flair are low-cost carriers but that they have few planes to fly.
Swoop currently has seven aircraft in its fleet, while Flair has five and is expecting two more to join its fleet in the next couple of months. That’s a fraction of the fleet size of other well-established, ultra-low-cost carriers. In Europe, for example, Ryanair and EasyJet operate more than 450 and 300 aircraft respectively.
And a tiny fleet means a higher chance of flight disruptions, Korenic said in reference to Swoop’s recent spree of flight cancellations.
“If you lose one aircraft, that’s one seventh of your fleet gone.”
The risk is especially high during the peak travel season, which tends to be between mid-June and the beginning of September in Canada, he added.
WATCH: Passengers stranded after Swoop due to technical issues with one aircraft
“That’s when you have your highest demand. You want to maximize your fleet as much as possible, so there’s little opportunity to add aircraft or capacity into a market place,” he said.
Likely adding to that challenge this summer are widespread capacity shortages caused by the issues surrounding Boeing’s 737 MAX planes, Korenic said. The jets have been grounded worldwide since March after two crashes involving the new-generation aircraft killed 346 people, including 18 Canadians.
Still, even for start-up airlines with a tight cash-flow, getting customer support right is of the utmost importance, Korenic said.
Re-booking a passenger several days later, “wouldn’t work for any of us,” he said.
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Will new air passenger rights make things better?
On July 15, new federal consumer protection rules for air passengers came into effect establishing new standards for treatment and compensation in case of overbooking, tarmac delays and lost or damaged luggage, among other things. Another batch of regulations is expected to roll out on Dec. 15, covering issues including flight delays and cancellations.
But will the new regime make a difference for passengers choosing low-cost carriers?
For cancellations that are “within the carrier’s control but required for safety purposes,” as in the recent Swoop cancellation, under the regulations coming into effect in December, “large airlines would have to re-book the passenger on another (competing) airline, if their own next available flight (or their partner’s) departs nine or more hours after the passenger’s original departure time,” the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) told Global News via email.
For small airlines, the requirement to re-book using competing airlines doesn’t exist, the agency also said. However, “the routing of the alternate travel arrangements must be reasonable and, to the extent possible, provide services that are comparable to those of the original ticket,” according to the CTA.
If the alternate travel arrangements don’t work for the passenger, all airlines must refund the unused portion of the ticket.
Also, “if the disruption has caused the passenger’s travel to no longer serve a purpose and the passenger is no longer at the point of origin on their itinerary, the airline must provide the passenger with a confirmed reservation back to the point of origin on the ticket and refund the full amount of the ticket,” the CTA said.
WATCH: A new passenger bill of rights takes flight on July 15
Still, the regulations do not specify a time limit for small carriers re-booking passengers, which renders the provision “less than useful,” according to Ian Jack of the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA).
“It is another reason why we need the regulator — the CTA — to be vigilant,” Jack added via email. “They have the ability to examine cases if someone complains, and can rule on the reasonableness of airline actions. The overarching goal of the regime is to get people to where they were going with the shortest delay.”
Still, Jack added it might be “challenging” for the CTA to effectively oversee the new regime without additional resources.
On the other hand, passengers dropped off somewhere other than their original destination, as was the case with Shickluna, would have a right to alternate arrangements ensuring they can reach their final destination, Jack said.
But air passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs said the new rules aren’t likely to be systematically enforced.
“In the past, the problem has been that fines were not being issued in practice,” he said, an issue he believes will continue under the new regime.
Lukacs and disability rights advocate Bob Brown have filed a lawsuit against the CTA concerning the new air travel regulations.
The rules also face a legal challenge from Air Canada and Porter Airlines, along with 17 other applicants including the International Air Transport Association — which boasts 290 member airlines — which claims the regulations violate international standards.
For her part, Ayala has already made up her mind about Canada’s low-cost carriers.
“I’m done with these cheaper things,” she said.