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COVID-19 impact on flights: Are you entitled to a refund for cancellations?
VANCOUVER -- Air travel is one of the industries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. As hundreds of flights are cancelled due to travel restrictions, consumers are being left wondering what their rights are.
Kyle Read is a Canadian citizen currently living in Australia, trying to get home. The BCIT graduate has been working with Cirque du Soleil as an electrician, but when shows were cancelled he decided to come home.
“I went on the website and I did the research, I chose a flight they were still offering,” Read told CTV News. “I booked a ticket with Air Canada and then three days later they wrote me an email saying that they’d cancelled my flight and that they weren’t going to refund me the money.”
In that time, the airline had updated it’s route suspensions, halting flights from Sydney to Vancouver until at least June 23.
“So now I’m stuck here, with $2,600 less in my pocket, still no way home and no guarantee of a way home.”
Air passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs says airlines offering travel vouchers instead of refunds is "theft."
“It is money that belongs to passengers and the airlines are trying to keep it, without any semblance of lawful excuse,” Lukacs said.
Under the Code of Conduct of Canada's Airlines, passengers are legally entitled to refunds if a flight is cancelled. Lukacs says a statement posted on the Canadian Transportation Agency’s website goes against that Code of Conduct.
It states that “an appropriate approach in the current context could be for airlines to provide affected passengers with vouchers or credits for future travel” instead of full refunds.
But Lukacs says the statement is not legally binding and he’s asked the federal court of appeal to have it taken down.
“That statement is being used very widely by travel agents, by airlines, by travel insurance companies, by credit card companies as an excuse for preventing passengers from getting back their money. We need to inform the public that all this information is wrong," Lukacs said.
When CTV News reached out the Air Canada regarding Read’s flight and the issuing of travel vouchers, we were directed to the updated routes schedule and the statement by the Canadian Transportation Agency.
But a UBC economist says given the current climate, travel vouchers could be part of a bigger picture.
“In the end the question is really, who pays for COVID?” said professor James Brander.
“The economic damage done by COVID is very substantial. The airlines, the airline employees, the airline shareholders, the airline customers are all going to pay something, as is the federal government, which basically means taxpayers as a whole.”
He says by the federal government allowing airlines to offer vouchers instead of issuing full refunds, it effectively puts a pause on the economic impact to the aviation travel industry.
“It's a difficult economic decision for the government to make. I personally think it is the right decision,” Brander said. “There are the public health issues and there are the economic issues. I think it’s really important to solve the public health issues first.”
But Lukacs says customers should stay firm if they don’t want a travel voucher.
“Reject it and then contact your credit card company and initiate a charge back on the basis of services not rendered," Lukacs said. "They may try to push back on this but if you’re being firm, if you know your rights and if you can explain clearly that you didn’t get the services you paid for, and that when you made the contract you did not agree to take vouchers, then they should initiate a charge back.”