WestJet to provide refunds for flights cancelled because of COVID-19
VANCOUVER -- After months of consumer complaints, and with a class action lawsuit against the airlines set to begin soon, Calgary-based airline WestJet now says it will begin issuing refunds for all flights cancelled because of COVID-19.
In a release, the company says it will “begin providing refunds to original form of payment for those guests with flights cancelled by WestJet and Swoop, from any time period, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” starting Nov. 2.
The release says on that date, the company will start contacting passengers who are eligible for the refund, “beginning with those with flights cancelled at the onset of the pandemic. The refund process is expected to take six to nine months to work through eligible requests.”
When McLaughlin On Your Side spoke with the company's vice-president of corporate communications, Richard Bartrem, just after the announcement, he said basic fares would not be included in the refunds.
“Those people who bought a basic fare recognized, at the time, that they were buying a fare that came with certain restrictions and as a result also came with a lower price,” he said.
Basic fares are the lowest fares the airline offers, and require the passenger to acknowledge, when booking, that they aren't refundable.
But on Wednesday afternoon, hours after the inital announcement, WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell reached out to McLaughlin On Your Side to say a correction to previous statements was coming - basic fares would, in fact, be included in the refunds.
She said the news release posted on the company's website would be updated to say: "The WestJet Group of Companies today announced it will begin providing refunds to original form of payment for those guests with flights cancelled by WestJet and Swoop, from any time period, FOR ANY FARE INCLUDING BASIC FARE as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic."
As of 7 p.m. PST on Wednesday, the website did not yet reflect that change.
The initial exclusion didn't sit right with the advocates who have been fighting for consumers’ rights to a refund since March.
"The law is, has been, and will remain that if WestJet cancels a flight, for whatever reason, it must refund the passengers. It doesn’t matter if it was a business class ticket, or a basic ticket,” said Gabor Lukacs, with Air Passenger Rights.
WestJet’s major competitor, Air Canada, partially changed its no refund stance in June, and said in a statement to McLaughlin On Your Side that, to date, it has returned $1.2 billion in refundable fares to passengers.
“WestJet is just now catching up to our policy to refund refundable fares,” it said.
Swoop, which is part of the WestJet group of airlines, is also offering refunds for all of its flights cancelled because of the pandemic, even though the airline doesn’t offer refundable tickets for sale.
Vancouver lawyer Simon Lin of Evolink Law started a class action lawsuit earlier this year against all Canadian airlines to get a court ruling on refunds, which he believes airlines don’t legally have a right to keep.
"It's not the passengers' fault," he told McLaughlin On Your Side in August. "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 from the pressures of the pandemic, forcing passengers who don't like it to file a complaint and wait.
However, earlier this week, opposition parties in Parliament demanded that the federal government make passenger refunds a mandatory pre-requisite in order for airlines to become eligible for any potential bailout package that may be developed.
In the meantime, those who are eligible for refunds from WestJet will begin to hear from the company in November.
If you’re looking to fly now, Bartrem said WestJet is still offering its flexible cancellation policy on all newly-booked flights, regardless of the fare level. But will refunds convince Canadian passengers to fly anytime soon?
"It's going to build, I believe, some goodwill, but there's still some frustration out there," Bartrem said. "All of this is providing confidence for travellers to move once again."