With the federal government issuing a strong advisory to Canadians not to travel abroad amid the Omicron variant outbreak, people with travel plans are scrambling to decide if they should keep their flight or cancel.
But Canadians don’t have much leeway to cancel or even delay their flights under Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR).
“Passengers have to take responsibility for their own travel and for their own lives,” said Gabor Lukacs, president of Air Passenger Rights.
In the case of a travel advisory, if an airline is still offering the flight and passengers don’t want to travel, they risk facing cancellation or fee change charges. If a travel ban was imposed leading to a flight cancellation, the bare minimum airlines would have to do is provide a rebooking, according to the APPR.
“Right now, travelling is probably not a good idea,” Lukacs said. “I consider that the government is giving the public good advice.”
Lukacs, who was travelling in Europe when the Omicron variant made its way to Canada, quickly changed his flight plans and returned home to Canada. His biggest fear was being stranded abroad, and he didn’t feel comfortable being out of the country, he said.
“The rapid spread of the Omicron variant on a global scale makes us fear the worst for Canadians that may think of travelling,” reads an advisory from the government of Canada. “Travelling Canadians could contract the virus, or get stranded abroad.”
The question surrounding travel is not whether the government is doing the right or wrong thing, but instead if some passengers are willing to stomach some of the potential extra costs, according to Lukacs.
“I have a lot of sympathy for these passengers, but at the same time, the airline is not your insurance company,” he said.
Methods to get your money back from airlines
There are ways to get your money back.
The simplest method to avoid trying to fight the airline for your money back is to buy travel insurance. Canadians can easily purchase travel insurance for their trip online directly through Expedia or another travel website. But the price to get a package that protects you can be steep, at times running more than $100.
Recently, ‘cancel for any reason’ policies have returned to Canada, but they typically only cover a cost of any non-refundable costs, according to Lukacs.
If you didn’t purchase insurance, there are ways of dealing directly with the airline, but they involve a lot of back-and-forths.
While vouchers and rebooking is an option, that is not the resounding desire coming from consumer advocacy groups and people trying to cancel flights, according to Omar Ha-Redeye, a lawyer with Fleet Street Law who specializes in consumer affairs.
“They think they should be entitled to a full refund if their flight is cancelled or rescheduled as a result of these new travel restrictions or governmental advisories around COVID-19,” he said.
Ha-Redeye is sympathetic to the financial struggles faced by airlines caused by the pandemic, but said the priority of legislators should be to ensure the average Canadian gets financial restitution. He said the government should reintroduce Bill C-249, which was designed to amend the Canada Transportation Act, but didn’t make it to a second reading during the last parliamentary session.
“Air passengers have a legitimate right to be refunded when they do not receive the carrier’s air services for reasons beyond their control,” read the text of the bill, which Ha-Redeye said would allow for refunds in a scenario like a government travel advisory.
“The financial situation and circumstances that many of us find ourselves in the pandemic … that full refund is going to be that much more important for Canadians than simply having a travel voucher.”
For people who have gone through a travel agency or agent to book, Ha-Redeye noted they can be in a better situation because maintaining customer satisfaction and having people come back for continued service is integral.
“They want to maintain relationships with their consumers, so they will find a way, especially because they deal with volume to get a refund if they’re looking to maintain a relationship with you simply because they can switch up that ticket, perhaps with someone else who is looking to take the flight,” he said.
What are Air Canada and WestJet’s policies?
Canada’s largest airline, Air Canada, told Global News via email the “plan is to operate its schedule.” A spokesperson for the company highlighted its flexible rebooking policy, which provides Canadian travellers with different options.
The company said it will continue to honour refundable tickets “as per those ticket terms and conditions.” For those with non-refundable tickets, the airline is allowing passengers to change their flight to another date without any fee, cancel their travel and receive a fully transferable voucher that does not expire or cancel and convert to Aeroplan points and receive an additional 65 per cent.
That policy does change after Dec. 31, according to Air Canada’s website. When a flight is changed in 2022, passengers can make a change at no cost, but will pay the difference in fare price if the new ticket is more expensive.
WestJet’s policy, which runs until Jan. 31, 2022, allows for passengers to receive a “$0 one-time fee waiver for changes or cancellations.” The cancellation or change must be made at least 24 hours before departure.
For those who do cancel with WestJet, their money will be returned as a credit, which does have an expiry date that is not specified on its website. The expiry date for the credit will be listed in WestJet’s Travel Bank for passengers, which the company calls an “easy-to-use account where you accumulate and save credit from non-refundable ticket changes, cancellations or service credits.”
If Air Canada, WestJet or another provider were to change their flight by at least three hours, Lukacs said Canadians can ask for a full refund and avoid flying that way.
Both airlines are advising passengers to go through their original booking route, whether online or through a travel agent.
WestJet CEO Harry Taylor criticized the government’s advisory, telling The Canadian Press that it would create “unnecessary disruption and chaos” for travellers during the holiday season.
“Fully vaccinated Canadians should not be singled out for choosing to take part in a safe activity,” Taylor said in a statement to the Press.
“Travel bans, restrictions and blanket advisories are devastating to the continued economic recovery of the country and place tens of thousands of recently recalled Canadian travel and tourism jobs at risk.”
Buyer beware when travelling abroad
Canadians need to be wary of travel during the pandemic and really assess if it is worth the hassle and money, Lukacs said.
“Perhaps we need to rethink the entire way we travel and also the entire way tickets are being sold right now,” he said. “Right now is the most expensive time to travel.”
In the current situation where the government is telling people not to travel for risk of being stranded abroad or contracting COVID-19, Lukacs said airlines should not be responsible for the choices Canadians are making.
“I think that I’m sure some people may be shocked to hear this from me, but airlines are not insurers for all possible risks,” he said. “If the world changes, the flight still operates but you just no longer want to travel, that’s probably the passenger’s own risk and risk tolerance.”
Change could soon be coming, though. On Dec. 18, 2020, the minister of transport gave the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) a directive to develop new regulatory requirements to provide passengers with refunds when flights are cancelled or delayed outside the airlines’ control and a passenger’s itinerary cannot be completed in a reasonable time.
The new regulations are under consultation and “would apply to all future flights to, from and within Canada, including connecting flights,” reads an email from a CTA spokesperson to Global News.
—with files from Erica Alini