Airlines face possible class action lawsuit as passengers fight for refunds
VANCOUVER -- The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything for commercial aviation, with airlines now constantly adjusting schedules based on demand and profitability.
And when a flight is cancelled, instead of refunds, they might be handing you a travel voucher. But that doesn't work for everyone, so how can you book with confidence?
In June, WestJet was supposed to take off from Vancouver to Cancun with Ron Anganu's family on board.
"We had kids excited," he says. "It was going to be a family vacation."
The WestJet vacation package, for 12 people, cost him $18,000. It was booked before COVID-19 but after the pandemic hit, the airline cancelled the family's flight.
And now, Anganu says, they're charging him cancellation fees - $250 for each of the tickets.
"They want to keep $3,000 for themselves," he says, even though it was the airline that cancelled.
Simon Lin with Evolink Law says the airlines can't just take the money and not deliver the product.
"It's not the passengers' fault," he says. "It's (in) no way the passengers' fault. Passengers have fundamental rights to refunds for unused fares."
But the Canadian Transportation Agency has said it is appropriate for the airlines to offer travel vouchers instead of refunds to help give the airlines a break, forcing passengers who don't like it to file a complaint and wait.
Anganu disagrees with that position.
"We're not a relief bank," he says. "I just want my money back. That's a significant amount of money."
When McLaughlin On Your Side reached out to WestJet, a spokesperson pointed to the CTA's position on vouchers and told us all future bookings that are cancelled would only get credit for future travel to be used within two years.
But Lin says that's not enough.
"If you do not receive a service, you should be entitled to a refund," the lawyer says.
He's initiated a class action lawsuit against all Canadian airlines to get a court ruling on refunds, which he believes airlines don't legally have a right to keep.
So how do you book future airline travel with any confidence? Air Canada is offering more expensive fares that are refundable regardless of who cancels the flight. And unlike WestJet, Air Canada's travel credits don't expire for non-refundable tickets. WestJet isn't offering refundable fares.
But Flight Centre's Amanda Grewall says both airlines are offering a lot more flexibility on future bookings.
"Consumers, for the first time in airline industry history, have the most flexibility as far as changes and cancellations are concerned," she says, though there is some risk.
Travel credits are only worth something if the airline can stay in business.
In a statement to CTV News Vancouver, WestJet said: "While our industry grapples with the effects of the pandemic, WestJet has not wavered from its commitment to ensuring Canadians have access to affordable air service. Until a vaccine has been produced our airline is working to balance the economic necessity that airlines are to our country with responsibly living with the virus for the foreseeable future."
Anganu wasn't willing to take the risk on his $18,000 because he doesn't know what the airline's financial future looks like. In the end, WestJet forgave one $250 cancellation fee and he gave up $2,750 to the airline in order to get most of his money back.
"There are no guarantees right now," he says, adding he's glad the lawsuit is going ahead. "We need someone to look out for Canadians because we have no voice otherwise."