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Canadian Transportation Agency responds to growing flier frustration over lack of refunds

Click to play video: 'Vouchers vs. refunds: Transportation experts weigh in on what Canadian airlines should be offering' Vouchers vs. refunds: Transportation experts weigh in on what Canadian airlines should be offering
The Canadian Transportation Agency and the federal transport minister have weighed in on the battle over travel vouchers vs. refunds. As Tomasia DaSilva reports their comments come as more Canadians demand their money back – Jul 28, 2020

The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) has responded to growing anger from many fliers who believe it has given an “out” to airlines which don’t want to issue refunds for cancelled flights.

Passenger rights groups along with numerous fliers have complained they are not getting refunds from airlines when it comes flights cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. In Canada, most airlines are offering travel vouchers instead, noting they are following the guidelines put forth by the CTA.

Read more: Calgary businessman battles to get $15,000 refund from WestJet

In an email, the CTA’s media team said its statement on vouchers — which said airline tariffs do not always provide for cash refunds — did not relieve any airline otherwise obligated to pay refunds, from doing so.

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The CTA added it issued the statement “in light of the risk that many passengers would receive nothing at all for the cost of cancelled flights, and the severe liquidity crisis experienced by airlines as flight and passenger volumes collapsed virtually overnight.”

Passengers demand refunds for cancelled trips

Calgarian Larysa Klymochko was in Mexico when COVID-19 hit and Canadians were told to come home.

She first booked a flight with WestJet but it was cancelled. She then booked a second flight with Swoop, but that also was cancelled.

She finally managed to get on a repatriation flight.

“We paid for three flights home,” Klymochko said. “We’re out all that money.”

She agreed to a voucher from WestJet for the first flight, but asked for a refund of $330 from Swoop, which was denied. She told Global News she knows it’s not that much money, but she still wants it back.

Kate Merkowsky has also been battling for a refund.

She booked what she called a “once-in-a-lifetime dream vacation” to the Dominican Republic in February.

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“I would never have been able to afford a trip like this,” Merkowsky said. “But my best friend passed away a year and a half ago and he left me a little bit of money so this was going to be the big splurge. That once in a lifetime memorial to him.”

She paid almost $12,000 for the trip with WestJet Vacations, but it was cancelled shortly after.

Merkowsky then suffered some medical issues which forced her to leave her job. She told Global News that despite pleading her case, she was only offered a travel credit — not a refund.

“The likelihood of being able to travel anywhere in the next few years with my underlying issues is low,” Merkowsky added. “$12,000 would make a big difference in my life and let me continue living the way I would like to.

WestJet told Global News it stands by its previous statements when it comes to passenger refunds

“We value the feedback we are receiving from our guests and appreciate how difficult this unprecedented situation is for all,” the airline said.

“WestJet has consistently provided change/cancel options to all guests impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, including the ability to re-book flights with no change fee, to refund the full value of their flight to a WestJet Travel Bank valid for use within 24 months for bookings made directly with WestJe,t or to retain their full ticket value for a future flight for bookings made with travel agents,” spokesperson Morgan Bell added.

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Swoop spokesperson Larissa Mark said that “as an ultra-low-cost carrier, all our fares are non-refundable; it is one of the reasons we are able to offer such low fares.”

Mark noted the airline is offering a future travel credit, for the full booking value, for 24 months as well.

Read more: Calgary newlyweds question airline’s cancellation and compensation policy

Both airlines once again pointed to the CTA statement that airline tariffs do not always provide for cash refunds, especially in cases beyond their control.

But passenger rights advocates argue recent judicial rulings do not rule out airlines providing passengers refunds, insisting that is what they should be doing.

CTA response

In the email to Global News, the CTA’s media team reiterated that vouchers for future travel can help protect passengers from losing the full value of their flights. It also said vouchers increase the odds over the longer term that consumers have a choice of airlines.

It also told us it is not siding with airlines over passengers.

“If passengers think they’re entitled to a refund and the airline refuses to provide one or offers a voucher with conditions passengers don’t want to accept, they can file a complaint with the CTA.”

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The email went on to say the CTA will determine if the airline complied with the terms of its tariff and each case will be decided on its merits.

“The voucher statement did not affect, and was not made with the intent to affect any one’s right.”

“The Federal Court of Appeal recently confirmed this, indicating that “[the statements on the CTA website… do not determine the right of airline passengers to refunds where their flights have been cancelled by airlines for pandemic-related reasons…. It thus remains open to affected passengers to file complaints with the CTA.]”

Federal response

Global News also reached out to the federal transport minister’s office, which said in an emailed statement that COVID-19 has led to an unprecedented situation in the aviation sector.

“Minister [Marc] Garneau knows how frustrating and difficult this is to many Canadians, but also recognizes that 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,” press secretary Livia Belcea said.
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“We are encouraged by recent efforts by air carriers to provide options for cancelled flights and refunds in some cases. We have been in touch with airlines and continue to follow the situation in the hard-hit aviation sector very closely.”

Belcea also said any passenger rights questions should be directed to the CTA which has the Air Passenger Protection Regulations posted on its website.

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