WestJet sparks customer fury after refusing refunds for cancelled flights — again
Following a CBC News inquiry, airline said customers interviewed would get a refund
WestJet has once again sparked customer fury after the airline cancelled several flights in July and told passengers they weren't entitled to refunds.
"It's unacceptable," said Shanie Couture.
With COVID-19 restrictions easing, the Quebec City woman booked her family of four on a round-trip flight from Montreal to Edmonton, departing July 24.
But almost two weeks later, WestJet cancelled the flight and rebooked the family on a new flight, which now included a stopover in Toronto each way.
Couture only wanted a direct flight, as she was travelling with two young children and had to drive more than 260 kilometres from Quebec City to get to the Montreal airport.
"This is my one-year-old's first time flying. I wanted to make it easier for them by taking only one flight," said Couture. "So I wasn't going to drive that distance to then have two flights to deal with."
When she called WestJet and requested a refund for the $1,768 she spent on tickets, Couture said an employee refused her request, telling her she could only get a credit for a future flight.
Couture unhappily accepted the credit, and spent an additional $2,369 to rebook her family on a preferable flight with another airline.
"I was very disappointed," she said. "I work in customer service. If I can't fulfil something for a customer, I give them a refund. I don't give them a store credit. That's not how it works."
CBC News interviewed four WestJet customers who each had booked flights to different destinations, all departing in July. In each case, WestJet cancelled their direct flight in mid-June and rebooked the customer on a longer flight that now included a stopover. In two cases, the new flights departed on different dates.
Each passenger said they requested a refund — but were only offered a credit.
Three out of the four passengers wound up rebooking with another airline, essentially paying twice for their tickets.
And there are dozens of similar customer complaints concerning WestJet flight changes posted on social media.
<a href="https://twitter.com/WestJet?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@WestJet</a> So you cancel our direct flight, put us on awful connecting flights. I go to cancel online and you will only refund to my travel bank?! You cancelled my flight! I want my $ back!—@analysismatters
<a href="https://twitter.com/WestJet?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@WestJet</a> changed my flight departure day and I can’t travel then. Tried to get a refund and they gave me travel credit for their airline. It’s solely their fault it changed. Been on hold over 2hrs and nothing. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/airlinessuck?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#airlinessuck</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/annoyed?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#annoyed</a>—@rachsuperstarr
In an email inquiry to WestJet, CBC News pointed out that Canada's Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR) suggest the customers interviewed were entitled to refunds.
Under the federal rules, airlines must offer refunds for flights cancelled for reasons within their control, as well as offer to rebook passengers on another airline if it can't find an alternative flight leaving within nine hours of the original departure.
Following several back-and-forth emails, WestJet responded that it had reviewed the customers' cases and determined they deserved refunds, which the airline said it would now provide.
"We apologize for the inconvenience and are reviewing our processes to make necessary improvements," said WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell in an email.
It shouldn't be so difficult for passengers to get a refund they are entitled to, said Ian Jack, a spokesperson with Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), a non-profit that serves Canadian travellers.
"You should treat your customers right," he said. "That clearly didn't happen in this case until some extra pressure was applied."
'Putting people first'
Last year, after the pandemic dropped most air travel to a halt, WestJet and several other airlines faced criticism for refusing to provide refunds for cancelled flights.
But by October 2020, WestJet changed its tune and became the first national Canadian airline to announce it would provide refunds for flights cancelled due to the pandemic.
"We are an airline that has built its reputation on putting people first," WestJet president and CEO Ed Sims said in a statement at that time.
That wasn't the message Seema Shirali, of Markham, Ont., said she received when WestJet cancelled a direct flight she booked for herself and her husband, from Toronto to New York City, for July 30.
The airline rebooked the couple on flights with a stopover in Atlanta, adding almost 4.5 hours to what was originally a 2.5-hour trip. On top of that, Shirali's husband was booked to fly home one day earlier than his original return date.
That meant his four-day trip to visit the couple's daughter would last only three days.
"The problem was that he has very little time," said Shirali. "I was really upset."
WestJet refused to give her a refund, she said, so she begrudgingly accepted a $502 credit for the couple's departing flight, as well as her husband's return flight and rebooked them with another airline — at an additional cost of $707.
"Now we have credits and money locked up," said Shirali. "What if this happens again? Like, do I really want to use WestJet again?"
'Unpredictable demand' during COVID
When CBC News first contacted WestJet last week about its recent spate of flight cancellations, the airline made no mention of offering refunds.
WestJet had to make flight adjustments "to accommodate unpredictable and inconsistent demand trends that are being influenced by changing [government] travel policies and guidance," said Bell.
She added that the airline was "doing our best to resolve complaints."
WestJet didn't specify if it deemed the flight adjustments as outside of its control, due to the pandemic.
Consumer advocate Jack argues that, at this point, the move is a controllable business decision.
"The airlines have had months to figure out how to manage under these circumstances, to understand what their [passenger] loads tend to be."
CBC News outlined to WestJet the airline's pledge to refund pandemic-related cancellations, the APPR rules on refunds for flights within an airline's control, as well as U.S. Department of Transportation regulations mandating that airlines flying to and from the United States provide refunds for cancelled flights — no matter what the reason.
Two out of the four customers interviewed were booked on flights to the U.S.
Bell responded that WestJet had determined the four customers did indeed deserve refunds, but didn't provide the reasons behind the decision.
As for Couture, she said a WestJet agent contacted her Thursday evening to start the refund process.
"If they really do reimburse me I'll be really happy. It's just — it's sad that it took this to get reimbursed."
The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) said it has received complaints involving this matter and is monitoring the situation. Two customers CBC News interviewed had filed complaints with the CTA.