'It hurts us': Air Canada, WestJet under fire for their reasons behind Puerto Rico flight cancellations

WestJet and Air Canada have both blamed Puerto Rico flight cancellations on hurricane damage at Puerto Rico's San Juan airport. But the airport says there's nothing preventing the airlines from flying in.

Both airlines have blamed airport damage but the San Juan airport says it's just fine

When WestJet cancelled Ed Tiessen's flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico, the airline told him the city's airport was damaged. But he didn't buy it. (Submitted by Ed Tiessen )

WestJet and Air Canada have both cited hurricane damage at Puerto Rico's San Juan airport as a reason why they cancelled flights to the island into 2018.

But Puerto Rico's tourism industry says the message is misleading and wants it to stop.

That's because while Hurricane Maria devastated the island on Sept. 20, its main airport started welcoming back international carriers by Sept. 29. 

"It hurts us if the message out there is the airport is not operational," says Miguel Quinones, with the government-run Puerto Rico Tourism Company. "The airport is fine."

However, that's not the message Ed Tiessen got from WestJet after it notified him on Oct. 17 that it had cancelled his round-trip flight to San Juan departing on Nov. 24.

Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan says it was back to normal operations by Oct. 8. (Luis Munoz Marin International Airport/Facebook)

To celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, he and his wife, who live in Summerland, B.C., had booked a Caribbean cruise sailing from Puerto Rico's capital city.

After getting the cancellation notice, Tiessen discovered San Juan flights on other airlines had shot up to prices he couldn't afford.

WestJet had offered a refund, but he asked the carrier to instead rebook him at no extra cost on a partner airline still flying to the city.

"I thought that was very reasonable," Tiessen says. "I just wanted to go on my cruise."

But WestJet turned him down and said the cancellation was out of its control.

'Incredibly disappointed with WestJet'

In a Facebook message to Tiessen on Oct. 18, WestJet wrote that San Juan was still suffering from the after-effects of Hurricane Maria.

The airline said that just the day before it was informed that the island's airport authority "cannot guarantee our ability to operate because of terminal damage issues."

A spokesperson for San Juan's Luis Marin Munoz International Airport refuted this claim and said the facility returned to normal operations by Oct. 8. Currently 25 airlines are flying into the airport. 

Tiessen says he knew the airport wasn't an issue and raised this with WestJet, but to no avail.

He says he eventually convinced the airline to fly him and his wife to Orlando, Fla., but they were still out $352 after having to book their own flight on American Airlines from Orlando to San Juan. 

"I'm incredibly disappointed with WestJet," says Tiessen. "We made a contract for them to fly me to San Juan."

Blaming airport was incorrect

In an email to CBC News, WestJet spokesperson Lauren Stewart offered Tiessen an apology and said the airline would contact him. 

She also admitted that blaming flight cancellations on airport damage was incorrect.

Stewart said the correct reason WestJet suspended flights until Jan. 13 is because Puerto Rico overall is still suffering from power outages and "not ready to receive our guests."

A brigade from the Electric Power Authority repairs distribution lines damaged by Hurricane Maria in the Cantera area of San Juan. (Carlos Guisti/Associated Press)

Stewart acknowledged that U.S. airlines are still flying to the island, but noted that they have reduced the number of flights they offer.

Last week, WestJet also admitted it had mistakenly blamed flight cancellations to Turks and Caicos on hurricane damage at its international airport, at a time when it was fully operational.

The real reason turned out to be that some of the island's resorts are still closed.

Air Canada says terminal damaged

Air Canada, meanwhile, has cancelled service to Puerto Rico for the entire October to April season, and has also blamed airport damage.

On Nov. 9, spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick told CBC News in an email that the hurricane damaged the terminal Air Canada uses at the San Juan airport. ​

The airport confirmed the damage, but said airlines which use the terminal have simply been redirected to another.

Air Canada flight cancellations have also caused disruptions for passengers, although Fitzpatrick says it's helping customers make alternative arrangements at no added cost. 

Air Canada told CBC News on Nov. 9 that it cancelled service to San Juan because of damage to the terminal it uses at the airport. (Air Canada)

CBC News asked Fitzpatrick again this past week why the airline cancelled Puerto Rico flights, after sharing what was learned about the San Juan airport.

He replied that along with other Canadian carriers, Air Canada cancelled service to Puerto Rico "due to the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria that continue still."

This time, there was no specific mention of airport damage. 

Quinones with the Puerto Rico Tourism Company concedes that the island is still recovering, but he still encourages people to come visit.

"If you want to help Puerto Rico, there's nothing that would help us more than people actually travelling to Puerto Rico," he says.

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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