Consumer advocacy groups and tens of thousands of Canadians are calling on the federal government to force airlines to offer passengers the option of a refund for flights they can’t take amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Many passengers so far are only being offered time-limited credit or vouchers for cancelled trips and tickets they can’t use, as Canada’s airlines bleed money due to a sharp decline in travel because of the spread of COVID-19 globally over the past months.
But organizations that advocate for consumer rights claim that’s not enough, arguing passengers are entitled to a full refund by law, and are turning up the heat on Ottawa to use its power to force airlines’ hands and help struggling passengers.
“These people are really very angry,” said Gábor Lukács, a well-known passenger rights advocate and founder of Air Passenger Rights Canada.
“People are livid.”
“This is a form of theft, and we have to call this by its name,” he claimed.
Lukács’ nonprofit group is behind a petition on Change.org that alleges airlines are “disregarding what they are legally required to do” and calls on the federal transport minister to “step in immediately to prevent Canadian travellers from suffering irreversible financial loss.”
The petition, launched two months ago, has been signed by more than 46,900 people, as of publication.
Montreal-based consumer rights groups Option Consommateurs recently initiated another petition and it’s now been sponsored by a Bloc Québécois MP and put before the House of Commons. That petition, as of publication, has garnered more than 14,700 names.
Both Air Passenger Rights and Option Consommateurs say they’ve gotten “overwhelmed” with complaints and messages from passengers over the last two months. Lukács told Global News his organization’s Facebook group has nearly doubled in size during the pandemic and has become a “zoo” with people posting hourly about their unsuccessful quests for refunds and issues with airline credits.
“The number of posts that we are handling per day has tripled,” he claimed. “It has become a significant challenge to manage such a volume of information and of everybody who is in desperate need for help.”
Elise Thériault, a lawyer working for Option Consommateurs, says her small team usually fields around 10 to 20 calls per day, typically about other consumer issues, like warranties. In the past three weeks, that’s spiked to 60 to 100 calls and emails a day — 90 per cent of them about airline companies, she said.
“It’s mostly regarding the vouchers, sometimes regarding some other aspects of travelling like hotel reservations or things like that,” Thériault said.
“But it’s mostly: ‘I want a refund and I can’t get it. What should I do?'”
Thériault said her organization brought forward its petition because consumers are complaining they’re getting the runaround from airline, insurance and credit card companies as they try to recoup money they need as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on the economy and people’s sources of income.
The petition claims that forcing consumers to accept travel vouchers “contravenes both the Civil Code of Québec … and Quebec’s Consumer Protection Act.” Thériault said Option Consommateurs wants the federal government to intervene by following in other countries’ footsteps.
In addition, Ottawa should make any financial aid it offers to cash-strapped airlines “conditional to offering the refund to the consumers who want it,” Thériault argued.
Trudeau pressed about flight refunds
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked on Thursday if his government would take that route.
During his daily news conference about the country’s COVID-19 response, Trudeau said the government recognizes both “how vulnerable the airline sector is” and that Canadians are concerned about being “out-of-pocket” for airplane tickets they won’t use.
“I think we need to have some very careful discussions with airlines, with the air travel sector and indeed with Canadians … to try and figure out a way forward where we can ensure that Canadians are treated fairly and our airline industry remains there for when our economy picks up again,” the prime minister responded in French.
“We will work with airlines and with Canadians who are concerned with finding solutions.”
Pressed again about whether the solutions being explored involve requiring airlines to refund unused tickets, Trudeau said in French the government is looking at what other countries are doing. He suggested Canadians both want their money back and “want there to be an airline industry in the future.”
“Finding the right balance is going to be crucial.”
Asked about the issue on Thursday, the office of Transport Minister Marc Garneau echoed some of the prime minister’s comments, saying the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered “an unprecedented situation in the aviation sector.”
“Minister Garneau knows how frustrating and difficult this is for many Canadians, but also recognizes the existential position many airlines are in,” said a statement sent by a spokesperson for Garneau. “A balanced approach is needed in supporting Canadians and ensuring that they continue to have affordable and efficient air transportation options for years to come.
“We have been in touch with airlines and continue to follow the situation in the hard-hit aviation sector very closely and we will continue to be there for Canadians.”
Speaking to Global News earlier in the day, Thériault challenged the consideration being given to airlines’ precarious financial circumstances.
“How about you lend a $1,000 to your neighbour and he says, ‘I’m sorry. I’m not refunding you because I’m going to go bankrupt,” Theriault said. “What would you say? ‘I will go bankrupt, too, so give me back my money.'”
“In no other situation that would be acceptable.”
What the Canadian Transportation Agency and different airlines say
In an FAQ page on its website, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) — an independent, quasi-judicial tribunal and regulator — says: “For flights cancelled for reasons beyond airlines’ control, the Air Passenger Protection Regulations, which are based on legislative authorities, require that airlines ensure passengers can complete their itineraries but do not obligate airlines to include refund provisions in their tariffs.”
A voucher, the CTA says “could be an appropriate approach in extraordinary circumstances, but doesn’t affect airlines’ obligations or passengers’ rights.”
The agency tells consumers whose travel plans were steamrolled by the pandemic to ask an airline for a refund if they don’t want to accept a voucher and believe they’re entitled to a refund.
“Sometimes, the airline may offer a voucher that can be converted to a refund if the voucher hasn’t been used by the end of its validity period,” the CTA says. “This practice reflects the liquidity challenges airlines are facing as a result of the collapse of air travel while giving passengers added protection in the event that they ultimately can’t take advantage of the voucher.”
In a statement Thursday, the CTA said it has received 5,100 complaints related to air travel between March 11 and May 19, 2020, but said it couldn’t “identify specific issues raised in these complaints” because it’s in the process of reviewing them.
That number represents about two-thirds of the total new complaints the agency received in the 2018-2019 year, according to the most recent figures available on its website.
Here’s what three of Canada’s biggest airlines say about their cancellations policies amid COVID-19.
A statement from an Air Canada spokesperson said: “While cancellations that are within an airline’s control can lead to a refund, those cancellations that are caused by COVID-19 are beyond an airline’s control.
“In the event of cancellations of flights due to COVID-19, Air Canada will refund those customers with refundable tickets,” the statement said.
“For those whose tickets are not refundable, the airline is currently providing a voucher worth the remaining value of the ticket for future travel, which is valid for travel that must be completed within 24 months of the flight cancellation date.”
“As the CTA noted … airline tariffs do not always provide for cash refunds especially in cases beyond our control. WestJet believes refunding with travel credits is an appropriate and responsible approach in extraordinary circumstances such as the COVID-19 crisis,” WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell said in a statement.
“In a short matter of time, demand for air travel dropped almost 90 per cent due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent closure of borders to travel. Since March, WestJet has reduced the size of its active workforce by more than 9,000 WestJetters and parked more than two-thirds of our aircraft. We are now solely a domestic carrier, keeping essential travel and goods flowing to our 38 Canadian airports.
“WestJet has consistently provided our guests with options when their travel has been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis,” the statement continued.
“Our guests can rebook flights with no change fee or obtain vouchers for the full value of their flight. As a result of this crisis, WestJet has extended its vouchers so that they can be used for up to 24 months.”
Porter Airlines, a smaller air carrier headquartered in Toronto, says it provides “a full credit” for a flight delay or cancellation “if the flight disruption was beyond our control,” according to its website.