Air Canada charges couple extra $2,000 to get home from Chile during pandemic

Two senior citizens say they feel gouged by Air Canada after having to fork over an extra $2,000 to get earlier flights back from Chile. They and others say Ottawa needs to do more to fight inflated prices and an unwillingness among airlines to refund tickets amid the pandemic.

Ottawa must do more to protect air travellers, advocate says

Maria Lopez, seen here with her husband, Emilio Godoy, says she felt pressured to book expensive flights after the prime minister urged Canadians to come home. (Submitted by Maria Lopez)

Maria Lopez says she and her husband were so desperate to cut a holiday short and get back to Canada, they felt pressured to buy inflated airline prices and are now out more than $2,000.

"I do feel quite taken advantage of," Lopez, 65, told CBC News from Santiago, Chile — where she and her 75-year-old husband Emilio Godoy are visiting family.

Their original return flights on Air Canada were scheduled for March 23, but when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged Canadians to get home as quickly as possible, Lopez and Godoy took his advice.

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They are like dozens of other travellers who've contacted CBC News, saying they are desperately trying to get home but feel they are being gouged. 

"I paid … over three times the cost of the original flight," wrote one traveller.

"There are flights available at nearly 50 per cent higher price," wrote another.

"The air fares are incredibly high … over $3,000 one way."

Air Canada charged Maria Lopez more than $2,000 to fly back to Canada three days before their scheduled flight. (Mike Hillman/CBC News)

Lopez says she spent hours trying to reach an Air Canada agent two days ago and, when she finally got through, the agent kept putting her on hold. 

"I was a bit concerned that if I lost that call, I couldn't get a ticket," said Lopez.

So when the agent said there were two seats available for March 20 — three days earlier than their planned departure — Lopez jumped at them, though the price went up by $731 US for each ticket (for a total of more than $2,100 Cdn). 

"We were hearing that we had to get back home because there might not be any commercial flights in the future and they could close the borders," said Lopez. "So you are pressured to do it. Get the next available seat — especially because we're seniors and we have health issues, too."

When Lopez told her daughter, Carol Reed, in Vancouver, she immediately fired off a complaint to the airline regulator, the Canadian Transportation Agency.

"It just really seems unfair and quite predatory to be honest," Reed told CBC News.

Carol Reed filed a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency, claiming the practice of selling expensive tickets during a crisis was predatory. (Erica Johnson/CBC)

It's common for airfare and other travel ticket prices to go up closer to the departure dates, and it's unclear whether the hikes experienced by Lopez and others are unusual.  

Air Canada wouldn't address questions about the price paid by Lopez and Godoy, and instead sent a statement, echoing its public remarks, that it is offering "special one-way fares for Canadians returning from Europe, North America, South America and the Caribbean.

"This is an unprecedented, rapidly evolving situation, which we're closely monitoring and continuing to adjust as developments unfold," the airline said, without offering specifics.

The head of an advocacy organization for air travellers says a Facebook group he runs has been swamped with questions and complaints.

Gabor Lukacs, founder of Air Passenger Rights, says he's sympathetic to passengers like Lopez and Godoy, but says the airline "is not breaking the law."

He says inflated prices are the result of supply and demand, and that Ottawa could be doing a lot more to ease the financial burden for travellers.

A headshot of a man.
Airline passenger advocate Gabor Lukacs says the government should use its authority to demand airlines issue refunds for unused tickets during the pandemic. (Robert Short/CBC)

"The reason that we are facing this situation is because refunds are not being issued," said Lukacs, referring to thousands of people holding tickets for upcoming flights they can't get on because of COVID-19, and the thousands of returning travellers who, due to the overwhelming volume of calls, couldn't get through to their airlines to cancel flights. 

Ottawa should have required the airlines "to allow all passengers to cancel free of charge right away," he said. "That would have freed up capacity on the phones and freed up capacity on the planes and then prices would have been lower." 

He's also concerned that some travellers are being told, contrary to the law, they're not entitled to refunds — only vouchers for future flights.  

"The transport minister should be stepping in and cracking down on this type of unlawful behaviour," said Lukacs.

The federal government has offered emergency loans of up to $5,000 for Canadians trying to get home and said in a statement it, "expect[s] air carriers will do their best to work with passengers, their partners and others in the transportation sector to provide the assistance they can under the circumstances."

Public Interest Advocacy Centre executive director John Lawford says he's optimistic things will work out for air passengers once the dust settles.

"It's really an unprecedented situation that we're in," said Lawford. "I just can't help but think that, given the scale of the disruption, that airlines will want to make this right. And the government very well may be working with them right now to get some more money in the system. I would hope after this pain, Canadians can get their money back."

Lawford says he foresees some sort of bailout for the airline industry, since — in the absence of a national carrier — airlines are performing a public service. 

"I would just tie some conditions to it [a bailout]," said Lawford. "If people have lost money or vacations in this period and the airlines get money to bail them out, then those individuals should also get their money back."


Erica Johnson

Investigative reporter

Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.