Business

WestJet once again gives passengers 'erroneous information' about why it cancelled flights

Airline says it incorrectly told passengers airport in Santa Clara, Cuba was closed until 2018

Joe Lawson WestJet Cuba

After Joe Lawson learned WestJet's explanation for cancelling his flight to Santa Clara, Cuba was wrong, he said, 'This is rather disappointing. I don't like being lied to.' (Joe Lawson)

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WestJet has admitted it provided passengers with "erroneous information" by telling them it cancelled flights to Santa Clara, Cuba, because of a closed airport.

Last month, the airline also said it gave similar incorrect information about why it cancelled flights to San Juan, Puerto Rico and Turks and Caicos.

WestJet previously told customers it had cancelled flights to Santa Clara because the city's airport was shut down until Jan. 6, 2018, because of Hurricane Irma.

The airport did close after Irma hit Cuba on Sept. 9, but it reopened on Sept. 25. Sunwing and Air Transat resumed service to the city in early November. 

WestJet now says it actually cancelled Santa Clara flights until January as a business decision. It made this statement following a CBC News investigation. 

Air Transat Santa Clara, Cuba aiport

According to the the Cuba Tourist Board, the airport in Santa Clara reopened on Sept. 25 and Air Transat resumed flying to the city on Nov. 11. (Santa Clara Airport/destilino.com)

"This is rather disappointing. I don't like being lied to," said passenger Joe Lawson. He paid extra to change his travel plans after WestJet told him it cancelled his Dec. 9 flight from Toronto to Santa Clara because the airport was closed until 2018.

He got the news on Sept. 26 — one day after the Santa Clara airport had actually reopened.

In a statement to CBC News, WestJet offered an apology to customers like Lawson for what it calls "communication errors."

Last month, the airline also apologized for incorrectly telling passengers it cancelled flights to both San Juan and Turks and Caicos because of hurricane damage at their international airports. At the time, both airports were open. 

WestJet said it actually cancelled flights to Turks and Caicos because of closed resorts and to San Juan because the island overall was still suffering from hurricane damage.

What about compensation?

WestJet has offered refunds for cancelled flights, but hasn't offered to cover added costs incurred by passengers who rebooked their trips to salvage vacation plans.

Air passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs alleges the airline misled passengers about airport closures because it wanted to avoid paying extra compensation for cancelling flights that were within its control. 

"They made up this story to avoid this obligation," claims Lukacs, who's based in Halifax. WestJet declined to comment on his accusations.

But the airline has compensated some affected passengers — after being confronted about its messaging.

Joe Lawson Santa Clara, Cuba

Lawson demanded the extra money he paid to rebook his trip after he learned that his Santa Clara flight wasn't cancelled due to a closed airport. WestJet gave him the refund. (Joe Lawson)

At first, Lawson accepted WestJet's claim that it had no choice but to cancel his flight to Santa Clara due to a closed airport.

He changed his vacation plans and booked a WestJet flight instead to Holguin, Cuba, costing him an added $244.53.

After reading a Nov. 18 CBC News article about WestJet incorrectly telling passengers it had cancelled flights to Turks and Caicos because of a closed airport, Lawson began to question his own situation.

"Something just twigged in my brain." He went online and discovered other airlines were flying to Santa Clara.

"I wasn't impressed," he said. "It would appear that the airline is playing the same game with passengers flying to Cuba as they were with passengers flying to Turks and Caicos."

Lawson called WestJet and demanded reimbursement for the cost of rearranging his travel plans.

"I said, 'Do you think this is appropriate, you're misleading people? You're telling people, it's an act of God?'"

WestJet did reimburse Lawson the extra $244.53, but he still feels wronged by its messaging errors.

"'Communication error' is garbage," he said. "They should be penalized."

'Where's the accountability?'

WestJet said it cancelled Santa Clara flights immediately after Hurricane Irma hit Cuba and "took a conservative approach" to a restart date in case the area took a long time to recover.

Spokesperson Lauren Stewart said the cancellations were a "business decision" that allowed the airline to free up aircraft so it could offer hurricane-affected passengers flights to other sun destinations.

She said WestJet would learn from its mistakes.

"As a brand built on trust, we aim to be open, honest and helpful with the information relayed to our guests," said Stewart. "We will use these communication errors as areas of improvement for future events."

Lukacs believes the Canadian Transportation Agency should launch an investigation into WestJet's actions for all three cancellations.

"We're not talking about one passenger. There are many people, many, many flights that have been cancelled," he said. "Where's the accountability?"

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