Harry Vanden Broek’s plans to visit family in Ontario with his wife Karen this summer were grounded when Swoop airline cancelled all of its scheduled flights from Charlottetown for the foreseeable future.
The airline cancelled the flights because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When Mr Vanden Broek requested a refund, he was directed to cancel his flight to get a credit with the airline, valid for two years.
“Why would I cancel my flight if you already cancelled my flight and why would I get a credit voucher when you’re not going to fly out of PEI?” Mr Vanden Broek was left asking.
A Swoop representative said, “we remain optimistic about serving the Island next year, bringing visitors to PEI when the time is right.”
But the airline offered no exact dates travellers could expect plans or flight options from Charlottetown to be reinstated.
Mr Vanden Broek said a credit for an airline that isn’t travelling from PEI isn’t an option he is interested in.
Swoop, a business which flies under the wing of its parent company, WestJet, isn’t the only airline to cancel flights from Charlottetown indefinitely. Air Canada announced June 30 it would discontinue 30 regional flights for the foreseeable future including the Charlottetown to Halifax route.
Doug Newson, CEO of Charlottetown Airport, said that flight accounted for about nine to 10 per cent of total traffic out of the Charlottetown Airport in 2019. Most would use the route to connect in Halifax with other flights headed toward their end destination. This Air Canada flight was the only route carrying passengers from Charlottetown to Halifax to catch those connections.
Mr Newson said Swoop and two other airlines were expected to start new routes from Charlottetown this year. Swoop was expected to offer flights from Charlottetown to Hamilton; Flair was expected to start a route from Charlottetown to Toronto and a new WestJet flight was expected to start flying from Charlottetown to Calgary. Each airline cancelled its plans.
“They’re cancelled for this year until further notice,” Mr Newson said.
This uncertainty leaves passengers like Mr Vanden Broek less willing to accept a credit.
He is not alone in his request for a refund.
Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat, Sunwing, and Swoop are facing proposed class action lawsuits for offering vouchers and credits instead of refunds for flights cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is a consumer-protection class action seeking to enforce each passenger’s rights to a refund for monies paid for their air tickets, when they are not able to travel for reasons outside of the control of the passengers,” states the lawsuit’s statement of claim.
It includes anyone “residing anywhere in the world” who has not received a refund and who bought a ticket with one of the companies before March 11 for a trip scheduled between March 13 and whenever the federal government withdraws COVID-19 travel advisories.
According to the claim, it is estimated tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of passengers could be affected by cancelled flights and refused refunds.
Gabor Lukacs, of Halifax, has been an air passenger rights advocate for more than a decade.
He said regardless of class action results, or limitations like dates written into the claim, passengers have a right to a refund based on Canadian laws and regulations. He offers some advice to others in Mr Vanden Broek’s position.
First, if you want a refund don’t cancel your flight, it will complicate the process.
“Because Swoop cancelled you don’t have to cancel.” Mr Lukacs said. “That’s a trap, Swoop will try to argue that oh, it was the passenger that cancelled not us.”
He advises taking screen shots of evidence that the airline cancelled the flight then asking for a refund based on Section 17.2 and 17.7 of Air Passenger Protection Regulations. These regulations require airlines to offer refunds to the original form of payment. He suggests being assertive and speaking with a supervisor if necessary. He also offers this reminder: Canadians have the right to record their own conversations and this would be a prudent time to exercise that right.
Record the call and record the number of hours you wait on hold, Mr Lukacs said.
“Of course the airline will likely refuse, that’s how they operate unfortunately.”
At this point, he recommends calling your credit card company to reverse the payment for services not received.
“The whole point of using a credit card is if for some reason you don’t receive the services you’ve paid for you get your money back.”
Mr Lukacs said if it doesn’t work he suggests Islanders take the case to a Small Claims Court.
“I don’t think they will have much fun defending this type of claim in court. I don’t think they will get much sympathy from the court,” said Mr Lukacs who has won a number of airline passenger related cases in court.
Mr Lukacs has more detailed advice on his website listed at: Lawsuit claim document: https://airpassengerrights.ca/en/covid19/coronavirus-how-to-get-a-refund