Canadians whose flights have been cancelled by COVID-19-related restrictions must receive refunds before Canadian airlines get more government assistance, Transportation Minister Marc Garneau announced.
The pandemic has reduced air travel by roughly 90 per cent, severely crippling Canadian airlines and many related industries. Airlines have been reluctant to offer refunds for cancelled travel, and have instead offered vouchers for future service. This has left many consumers frustrated that airlines are not following their own policies, and that the Canadian Transportation Agency has not yet dealt with thousands of COVID-related complaints.
In a published statement on November 8, 2020, Garneau indicated the federal government is working on an assistance package to airlines, airports and related sectors. This “could include loans and potential other support to secure important results for Canadians,” the statement said. “Before we spend one penny of taxpayer money on airlines, we will ensure Canadians get their refunds.”
Westjet announced October 21 that it would begin providing refunds “to original form of payment” for consumers with flights cancelled by WestJet as a result of COVID-19, effective November 2. It said to expect “an administrative backlog” and asked for patience from consumers.
For many months prior, consumers have been directed to file complaints with the CTA if they were unsatisfied with refunds offered by the airlines. But published reports have said the CTA has not begun to deal with COVID-related complaints, leaving many consumers out of pocket for prepaid air travel.
“Canadians who had already booked travel ended up stuck with vouchers for trips they could not take instead of getting refunds. They found themselves in a situation where they have given thousands of dollars in interest-free loans to airlines,” noted Garneau.
At least three class actions have been filed against Canada’s major airlines – WestJet, Air Canada, Air Transat, Sunwing and Swoop. Other class actions have been filed against providers of travel insurance and rewards programs related to flight cancellations.
Quebec MP Xavier Barsalou-Duval presented a bill in late October that would amend the Canada Transportation Act to require air carriers to fully refund passengers when the carrier cancels a flight.
Air passenger advocate Gabor Lukacs said Garneau’s statement indicates the government “has been forced to recognize the issue and the massive public outrage”, but noted that there are still many unanswered questions, such as whether this initiative could be established in legislation, whether all Canadians or just some Canadians would be entitled to refunds, and what steps would be taken to protect non-Canadians who bought tickets from Canadian airlines.