'It sucks': WestJet bumps N.S. cycling team from flight, costing athletes expensive training time
Cyclists, coaches miss almost 2 days of training after arduous trip to Atlanta
Ten members of Nova Scotia's provincial cycling team are so upset with their recent experience with WestJet, they're planning to take the airline to court.
"It's the epitome of the horror story you hear about travelling," says provincial team coach Jon Burgess.
In February, the group of seven young athletes and three coaches were set to fly from Halifax to Atlanta for a cycling training camp ahead of tryouts for the upcoming Canada Games. The trip cost $14,000 in total.
But WestJet bumped the entire group from their flight, which ignited a slew of travel troubles including multiple delays and flight changes. As a result, they missed almost two days at the camp.
"Just getting there was very defeating, very disappointing on so many levels," says Burgess who lives in Bedford, N.S.
WestJet is currently running a TV ad boasting that it doesn't overbook flights, which can result in bumped passengers.
The airline told CBC News the cycling team was bumped because WestJet had to switch to a smaller aircraft due to "inclement weather." It provided no details about the weather conditions or why switching to a smaller aircraft would be beneficial.
Burgess doesn't recall any bad weather that day. "It was perfectly sunny," he says.
WestJet then booked the team onto two separate flights leaving the following day. In the first group, two coaches, including Burgess, and five teenaged athletes were put on a flight to Toronto with a connecting Delta flight to Atlanta.
But when the group arrived in Toronto, they were alarmed to discover only the other coach was booked on the Delta flight.
Burgess says he was "maximally stressed," by that point. "Everything that could go wrong, it seems to be going wrong."
While the one coach got to take the scheduled Delta flight, Burgess and the five athletes were instead put on a flight to Boston and then a connecting one to Atlanta.
They landed on Saturday night, almost 24 hours later than they would've arrived if they hadn't been bumped.
To make matters worse, their checked luggage and bikes didn't arrive with them.
"No luggage, no bikes and it sucks," recalls 16-year-old Calum MacEachen from Mahone Bay, N.S.
"It's annoying that you're planning something big and you just get mishap after mishap."
The second group of three team members travelling on a separate flight also hit a snafu during a stopover in Boston.
That group, too, was somehow not booked on their connecting flight to Atlanta. They were put on another flight and didn't arrive in Atlanta until Sunday — two days after their journey had begun.
Because the second group arrived so late, and because Burgess had to rent bikes for the first group, it was Sunday evening by the time everyone started training. They had missed almost two days out of the 10-day training camp.
"When you're taking time off of school and time off of work to go down there, two days is a lot," says Burgess, who's also a full-time firefighter.
The trip wasn't cheap, either. Although the group got some funding, each athlete had to pay a large chunk of their costs. MacEachen's mother says she shelled out about $1,600 for him to attend.
"It's disappointing for sure," says Rosemary MacEachen. "WestJet definitely dropped the ball."
When they got back, Burgess contacted WestJet to complain. He says the airline first offered him a $150 voucher per passenger for future WestJet flights.
"My jaw dropped," he says. "Like, you're kidding, right?"
Burgess protested and says WestJet upped the offer to $200 flight vouchers.
The airline also offered to cover the group's first night's accommodation at the camp, which they missed but were still charged for. WestJet said it would also refund the group's baggage fees. Burgess and five athletes didn't get their bags and bikes until the third day of their trip.
The offer wasn't good enough for Burgess or for anyone else involved in the trip.
"It didn't seem to be enough considering what they had to go through," says Rosemary MacEachen.
According to WestJet's rules, bumped passengers delayed more than two hours are entitled to 400 per cent of the the flight's ticket price to a maximum of $1,300 per passenger.
But the rules don't apply if passengers are bumped because the airline had to downgrade to a smaller aircraft for safety or operational reasons. That would include the flight in question, says WestJet.
"This was a situation where we were required to switch to a smaller aircraft due to weather in the area," said spokesperson Lauren Stewart. "Weather, needless to say, is out of our control."
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Stewart did, however, offer an apology to the cycling team. "We are sorry the service our guests were provided was clearly not up to the WestJet standards to which we aspire," she said in an email to CBC News.
Regardless, she says WestJet believes the compensation it has offered is fair.
Burgess has teamed up with Halifax-based airline rights activist Gabor Lukacs and plans to take legal action to fight for more compensation for the group.
The cycling coach says if he's successful, the money will go to the athletes who could use it for future training or to cover some of their debt from the Atlanta trip.
"[That's] the biggest thing for me," says Burgess. "It was such a financial investment for a lot of these athletes and parents."