It was supposed to be a dream vacation.
Taylor Jones had purchased two round-trip tickets to Orlando, Fla., to visit Disney World — a surprise birthday and graduation present for his girlfriend Marissa Lyne-Boehm.
“We’re both big kids at heart,” said Lyne-Boehm, as Jones chuckled in agreement.
But then, the flights were cancelled by WestJet due to the pandemic, signalling the beginning of a four-month battle to get a refund of the more than $1,000 spent on tickets instead of receiving a travel credit.
In the wake of COVID-19, the airline industry has been rocked, with many companies opting to offer credit instead of refunds despite that being illegal in B.C., Canada and the United States.
The tickets were purchased in February before the pandemic. But as the virus spread, international borders closed, travel bans were enacted and the airline industry saw mass cancellations.
In June, Jones began to contact WestJet, first through an agent at Expedia, where he had purchased the package, then independently. Each time, he says he was told to call back at a closer date to the trip and the refund would be issued.
A week before the Sept. 27 departure date, Jones received an email that the trip was officially cancelled, but when he called to request a refund, he says he was told that WestJet would only provide WestJet Dollars — travel credits with a 24-month expiration date.
“This is tough times for everybody. [I’ve been] trying to be understanding,” said Jones. “I really tried to work with them, but it just felt like a big betrayal.”
And the couple isn’t alone in their frustration. The Canadian Transportation Agency [CTA] says it has received almost 11,000 complaints since mid-March.
Although it hasn’t been able to categorize all the grievances yet, it said “we expect a portion of these will relate to vouchers and refunds.”
Airlines aren’t above the law: advocate
The rules on flight refunds are clear in both Canadian and American law.
“WestJet’s position is based on the misconception that somehow the airline can override the law,” said Gábor Lukács, an air passenger rights advocate, who points to B.C.’s Consumer Protection Act as the first line of defence.
It says that if a contract is cancelled, the supplier has 15 days to issue a refund after the notice of the cancellation.
As well, Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations says that if an airline is unable to provide a reasonable alternative itinerary, refunds “must be paid by the method used for the original payment and to the person who purchased the ticket or additional service.”
Finally, by law, WestJet must follow the rules set out by the U.S. Department of Transportation [DOT] because the round-trip flights travelled either to or from the country.
“Airlines must obey the law. If they don’t like the law, they can lobby parliament to change the law. Until the law is changed, they have to obey the laws as they are today,” said Lukács.
In April, the DOT issued an enforcement notice to all air carriers operating in the U.S. that reinforced the rules.
“The longstanding obligation of carriers to provide refunds for flights that carriers cancel or significantly delay does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control,” it said.
Keeping the cash and the customer
It’s no secret that the airline industry is currently in crisis mode. There have been massive layoffs at the Vancouver International Airport, regional airports are pleading for federal aid and, earlier this week, WestJet retreated from Atlantic Canada.
“I think it’s dire … is the simple word,” said David Gillen, YVR professor of transportation policy at the University of British Columbia.
He says there are a few simple reasons why airlines choose to offer credits over refunds, chief among them: cash flow.
“Airlines operate on cash flow. This allows them to keep the cash,” he said.
As well, it allows the airlines to keep the customer.
“If the customer has WestJet dollars, rather than Canadian dollars, then they don’t have the freedom to spend it on other activities.”
In a statement to CBC News, WestJet said its decision to offer credits is backed up by CTA’s announcement that airlines can temporarily offer credits due to the pandemic.
But the CTA clarified that it was a suggestion to airlines, adding that anyone unhappy with a refund could file a complaint.
“To be clear, it did not relieve any airline otherwise obligated to pay refunds from doing so,” it wrote in a statement.
While WestJet believes it is covered for Canadian flights, it did say that it is in the process of offering some refunds.
“We have been processing refunds to the original form of payment for guests holding some international itineraries that were cancelled by WestJet due to the COVID-19 crisis,” it wrote.
Fortunately, Jones and Lyne-Boehm would appear to fit that criterion, however, when asked if they would be issued a refund, WestJet failed to respond.
“It’s not the consumer’s responsibility to help bail them out on this and the fact that they didn’t even give us an option was even more frustrating,” said Lyne-Boehm.
Now, the couple will continue to wait and fight for their refund.
CBC Vancouver’s Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email firstname.lastname@example.org.