Flight cancellations and lengthy delays have left many holiday travellers stuck while trying to get home as airlines blame rising cases of Omicron for their problems.
However, some industry experts say passengers should be entitled to compensation because of the delays.
“You cannot blame your own failure to have adequate crew on the passenger,” Air Passenger Rights president Gabor Lukacs said. “That’s the airline’s responsibility.”
Cancellations began to spike the day before Christmas during an already busy time of year for travel.
In Canada, WestJet Airlines said it was forced to cut 15 per cent of its flights through to the end of January.
“We are running roughly 450 flights a day. So if you look at the percentages, that works out to be about 60 or 70 flights that you might see that would be cancelled per day and then consolidated onto other flights,” WestJet VP of communications Richard Bartrem said.
The Calgary-based airline says it has seen a 35 per cent increase in active cases among staff in recent days, with 181 WestJet employees currently affected by COVID-19.
Bertram said Omicron has had a major impact on staff.
Airlines started to hire back staff who had been laid off when flights were mostly grounded during the height of the pandemic. But some have been more successful than others.
“They’ve ramped back up but that’s been a difficult process as well, and they may be let too many people go, but it’s hard to predict given the way the business has gone up and down,” aviation analyst Karl Moore said.
But Lukacs said Omicron was already on the horizon weeks ahead of the holidays and businesses should have been better prepared.
“They did not plan properly for a contingency if they did not properly hire sufficient and many people who would be able to deal with even substantial cancellations,” Lukacs said.
Lukacs points to the fact that Air Canada has not had to make the same sweeping cancellations and said it’s another example of why passengers must be compensated.
“This is simply bad management, poor decisions. That’s a business problem of the airline,” he said.
Under the Air Passenger Bill of Rights, any passenger who has their trip cancelled or delayed for a reason that is within the airline’s control and is not required for safety could be entitled to compensation.
“As far as we are concerned, these are cancellations and delays within (the airlines’) control,” Lukacs said. “We don’t accept the theory that this is something outside airlines’ control…. That theory is bogus.”
First, passengers are entitled to a full refund of their ticket (if they choose) or they must be rebooked on the next available flight.
“It has to be a next available flight or if (they) cannot do it within nine hours of the departure of (the) original flight that was sold, then it actually has to go out and buy people tickets on other airlines,” he said.
A passenger’s compensation would be based on the length of delay at arrival at their final destination and could be up to $1,000.
A passenger has one year to make a compensation claim with the airline that operated the disrupted flight. The airline has 30 days to respond by issuing a payment or indicating why it believes compensation is not owed.
Airlines must offer passengers this compensation in monetary form.
You can file your compensation claim directly with the airline.
But it’s not always so cut and dried.
“You’ve got to be careful to read the fine print and find out what is going on or what you’ve committed to,” Moore said.
COVID-19 and the industry-wide impact
Staffing shortages due to COVID-19 and other struggles led to a nine per cent reduction in flights worldwide over the holiday season, Moore added.
“Literally thousands of flights were cancelled around the world because of Omicron, the weather, but also it’s the peak time of the year for travel.
“Therefore, it’s when the most demands are put on the system.”
Moore said the airlines have had one of the most challenging two years on record, which saw up to 90 per cent of Canadian flights cancelled at the height of the pandemic.
“The International Aviation Transport Association predicts it’s going to be a year or two before it gets back to where it was or even close to 2019,” Moore said.
Moore said people within the industry were hopeful this winter season would be better but Omicron had other plans. He said while there have been disruptions, he thinks the airlines have handled it well, for the most part.
“I think they’ve done a reasonably good job given the constraints that they’ve been under and the surprise that Omicron has been,” he said. “It is impossible to do a great job in the context we’ve been in for the last six months to a year.”
He said airlines are still working to get back on their feet and many took huge losses when they were forced to refund tickets when travel shut down in 2020.
“If you don’t get revenue, you don’t make money, but you have to pay back money that you had in the cash reserves,” Moore said. “That’s really tough and was a huge challenge thus far for the airline industry worldwide during the pandemic.”
The industry could be crunched yet again with the latest surge in COVID-19 cases.