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.