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Montreal consumers struggling to get refunds due to coronavirus cancellations

COVID-19 refund struggles
WATCH: COVID-19 refund struggles

A lawyer in Montreal and the president of a consumer advocacy group are calling on businesses to provide refunds to Montreal consumers who have seen flights, events and other activities cancelled due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“A lot of consumers are very frustrated. Every day, I speak to a lot of them who tell me they have a hard time getting their money back,” said Élise Thériault, a lawyer with Options Consommateurs.

The consumer advocacy group, which is based in Quebec, has been busy helping consumers during the health crisis. For everything from cancelled concerts to trips to sports programs, they’re hearing that refunds are hard to come by.

In some cases, customers are given different options, including refunds. The Centaur Theatre play Mob was in the middle of its run when the COVID-19 pandemic saw the stage go dark, and the play was cancelled.

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“It was particularly heartbreaking for a number of reasons,” said Eda Holmes, artistic director for the Centaur.

“It was sold out before we started, and we were already extending the run. It’s an interruption of the creative process. A play continues to develop. Twelve performances in, they were just finding the next phase.”

READ MORE: COVID-19 refunds — What to know about credit card chargebacks

The Centaur scrapped the rest of its season. The company has offered ticket holders a variety of options, such as credits for next year, a donation to the theatre or a full refund with no administrative fees charged.

Holmes says consumers are evenly split among all three options.

“It’s really up to our patrons to decide what is best for them in this situation,” Holmes said.

Not all customers are as lucky as Centaur ticket holders, though.

Thériault says some companies are only offering credits or vouchers for cancelled events or activities. She explained it’s legal to offer deals to customers but not incumbent on consumers to accept them.

“It’s not legal to force consumers to accept this as their only offer,” she said. “They need to offer at least the option of a refund for those who want it.”

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What about flights?

Airline tickets are also proving a thorny issue, with frustrated passengers struggling to get refunds.

Six consumer groups have lodged a complaint with the government. They say passengers are entitled to full refunds under the law and that it’s not happening because airlines are saying they are struggling financially. But the groups say the law is plain and simple and that passengers should be allowed refunds.

“They need this money here and now to pay groceries, bills, their taxes,” said Gabor Lukacs, president of consumer advocacy group Air Passenger Rights.

“What the airlines are doing is a form of theft. That money belongs to the passengers.”

The fallout has been difficult for the travel industry and International Air Transport Association says airlines are set to lose up to $84 billion due to the pandemic. Air Canada, for example, laid off more than half of its workforce since flights are mostly grounded.

In April, West Jet announced it would lay off at least 3,000 workers.

Coronavirus outbreak: Why won’t airlines give me my money back?
Coronavirus outbreak: Why won’t airlines give me my money back?

In late May, Quebec’s National Assembly unanimously adopted a motion to demand the federal government force airlines to offer reimbursements to travellers whose flights have been cancelled due to the pandemic. Airlines are under federal jurisdiction.

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The federal government has acknowledged the issue. Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government is looking at the issue of airlines offering travel vouchers rather than refunds to passengers who have had their flights cancelled.

Most Canadian airlines are offering travel credit and other options for travellers. Air Canada, for example, has also expanded booking options and customers with refundable tickets can also choose to get their money back.

However, travellers who purchased a non-refundable ticket and decide to cancel their flight won’t be eligible for a refund, the website warns.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Quebec wants federal government to force airlines to offer reimbursements

Global News reached out to Air Canada for comment but did not hear back.

Experts suggest filing with small claims court or contacting the consumer protection agency if you’re struggling to get your money back.

— With files from Global News’ Erica Alini, Kalina Laframboise and the Canadian Press