California sues travel sites FlightHub, JustFly for 'swindling' customers and 'deceptive' fees
Montreal-based parent company says the lawsuit's allegations are unfounded
California has launched a lawsuit against online travel agencies FlightHub and JustFly for alleged "unscrupulous business practices, designed to fleece the average consumer."
FlightHub and JustFly's parent company is Montreal-based FlightHub Group, formerly known as Momentum Ventures.
The lawsuit, filed in California Superior Court on Sept. 19, accuses the company of "swindling its customers for years" with practices such as charging "deceptive, false, and hidden fees," advertising enticing airfares that don't exist and failing to deliver prompt refunds.
"We've received complaints and done investigations that show that there is a variety of practices that are unlawful or unfair under California law," said San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the people of the state of California.
"What we're trying to do is to stop a practice so that more people are not victimized."
A spokesperson for FlightHub and JustFly told CBC News that the lawsuit focuses solely on JustFly and that its claims are baseless, because the agency is transparent and compliant with regulations governing the industry.
"These allegations are unfounded and JustFly intends to prove it," said Pierre Methé, FlightHub's director of customer service, in an email.
'I feel so stressed'
According to the suit, the Better Business Bureau, Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Transportation have received more than 2,000 customer complaints about JustFly and FlightHub in the past two years — more than any other online travel site.
FlightHub is geared toward Canadian customers while JustFly targets the U.S. market.
Methé said customers purchased more than five million airline tickets using the agencies in 2018 and that the "vast majority" are "highly satisfied" with their service.
But customer complaints have sparked concerns among state officials and consumer organizations.
Following its latest review in September, the Better Business Bureau maintained an ongoing consumer alert for both FlightHub and JustFly due to an established pattern of complaints including refund and billing issues.
The Office de la protection du consommateur — the consumer protection agency in Quebec where FlightHub Group is based — reports it's concerned after receiving 77 complaints involving both agencies over the past two years.
CBC News has received more than 20 unsolicited complaints about FlightHub over the past three months.
They include one from Bernadette Villareal of Airdrie, Alta., who reached out on Tuesday. She was distraught because she still hadn't received a promised $5,200 refund for five airline tickets she cancelled on May 28 — more than four months ago.
"I feel so furious, I feel so sad, I feel so stressed," said Villareal in tears. "I don't know what to do."
In March, she booked the tickets through FlightHub for a family trip to the Philippines in June. But then her father, who lived in the Philippines, died, forcing Villareal to cancel the tickets. She repurchased them for an earlier date so the family could attend the funeral.
When Villareal's promised refund for the cancelled tickets didn't materialize, she continually called and emailed FlightHub with no success, she said.
"I don't know why this company is doing this," she said. "It's not a small amount of money and we're not rich."
Shortly after CBC News contacted FlightHub, the agency apologized to Villareal for her experience and said her $5,200 refund is coming by mail.
Methé told CBC News that Villareal caused the long delay by filing a claim for the missing money with her debit card provider, which had to be sorted out first.
Villareal said she didn't file a claim until July 18 — after waiting more than six weeks for her refund.
Misspelled name fees?
Patricia McPhee in Bowden, Alta., also recently contacted CBC News.
On Sept. 13, she booked a flight to the Philippines over the phone and said the FlightHub agent misspelled her travel companion's name by one letter on the ticket.
During one followup call which McPhee recorded, FlightHub blamed her for the mistake and suggested she may have to cancel and rebook the ticket, plus pay a $465 cancellation fee.
During another call, McPhee said, FlightHub told her the airline involved, EVA Air, would do the fix for $300.
On Sept. 20, she called EVA Air and learned that it wouldn't charge for the fix, which must be done by FlightHub.
On Sept. 23, CBC News contacted FlightHub about McPhee's case. Later that day, the agency fixed the mistake at no cost.
"It was nerve-racking," said McPhee. "It should have been fixed within 10 minutes. It took 10 days."
FlightHub said it had been working to resolve the issue long before the inquiry from CBC News and that it never requested a name-change fee.
"What a crock of garbage," said McPhee in response. She's glad to hear that California has launched a lawsuit against the company.
"It's unfortunate that it takes a whole [state] to sue someone for them to get the hint."
Although only customers in California could benefit financially from the suit, its wider aim is to stop FlightHub Group from engaging in alleged unfair business practices.