WestJet gets 'formal warning' for misleading passengers about why it cancelled flights

The Canadian Transportation Agency issued WestJet a "formal warning" after it violated Air Transportation Regulations by incorrectly telling passengers in late 2017 that it cancelled certain flights due to airport closures in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

Some affected passengers say WestJet should also be ordered to pay compensation

Karen Lawson, who lives in Turks and Caicos, was affected after WestJet cancelled some flights to the islands in late 2017 in the wake of Hurricane Irma. The airline incorrectly blamed it on airport closures, but later admitted the cancellations were a business decision. (Submitted by Karen Lawson)

WestJet violated Canada's Air Transportation Regulations when it told passengers in late 2017 that it cancelled flights to Turks and Caicos and Santa Clara, Cuba, due to airport closures, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) says.

At the time, each region's international airport was fully operational.

Following an investigation, the CTA determined WestJet violated a regulation which states that airlines "shall not make publicly any statement that is false or misleading." As a penalty, the CTA gave WestJet a formal warning, which means if the airline commits the same violation again, it could face a monetary fine.

Some affected passengers believe the CTA ruling doesn't go far enough.

"I liken it to a slap on the wrist," said Karen Lawson.

In 2017, WestJet cancelled two of her flights from Toronto to Turks and Caicos, scheduled for Sept. 9 and Nov. 15.

The cancellations affected many WestJet passengers, who received refunds, but often had to pay extra to rebook trips on other airlines in order to salvage their travel plans.

Lawson got compensation from WestJet after she spoke with CBC News about her cancelled flights to Turks and Caicos. (CBC)

Following a CBC News investigation in late 2017, WestJet revealed that it didn't cancel the flights due to airport closures — as it had told passengers. Instead, the cancellations were a "business decision," made after both Turks and Caicos and Santa Clara had been hit by Hurricane Irma and were attracting fewer tourists.

"This was an inadvertent communications error on our part and we have updated internal procedures to ensure this type of miscommunication does not happen again," WestJet spokesperson Lauren Stewart said in an email to CBC News. 

Blame it on Irma

Lawson believes the CTA should have ordered WestJet to compensate all affected passengers who paid out-of-pocket to rearrange their flights.

"I would have hoped that WestJet would have been impacted by some punitive measures," said Lawson, who lives in Turks and Caicos, where she co-owns a charter. She frequently travels to Ontario, where she has a cottage.

A Southwest Airlines plane is shown after landing at the Providenciales International Airport in Turks and Caicos on Nov. 4, 2017. This was during the same time period when WestJet had cancelled flights into the region, initially saying the decision was due to airport closures. (Ramon Andrews/Facebook)

Lawson knew the international airport in Turks and Caicos was open and operational when WestJet cancelled her November return flight from Toronto. She pointed this out to the airline, but the company replied in a Facebook message that the airport was still closed to commercial airlines until mid-December.

After she complained about the airline's incorrect messaging to CBC News, WestJet refunded her for the extra expenses of having to rebook a couple of flights and provided added compensation. 

Lawson had never asked for more money; her big beef all along was that WestJet gave out wrong information.

"They made an informed business decision not to fly to [Turks and Caicos] after the hurricane, but they knew it would be an unpopular decision," she said. "So they tried to hide their decision in the craziness that follows a hurricane of this magnitude, hoping people would accept their explanation, carte blanche."

'A breach of contract'

Joseph Lawson (no relation) was also affected by the cancellations. He too believes the CTA should have ordered WestJet to compensate affected passengers.

On Sept. 26, 2017, he was told WestJet had cancelled his Toronto-to-Santa-Clara flight scheduled for Dec. 9, because the airport would be closed until 2018. But he got that news one day after the Santa Clara airport had reopened.

The airport was shuttered after Irma hit Cuba on Sept. 9 — but only for two weeks.

Joe Lawson demanded the extra money he paid to rebook his trip after he learned that his WestJet flight to Santa Clara, Cuba, wasn't really cancelled due to a closed airport. (Submitted by Joe Lawson)

When Lawson complained to WestJet, the airline refunded the extra $244 he paid — on top of his refunded tickets — to make alternative travel plans. WestJet must do the same for other affected passengers, he says.

"If it's just a business decision, then they [were] obligated to rebook those passengers on other flights, on other airlines," said Lawson. "We effectively have an issue of a breach of contract."

Beyond their control?

According to the CTA, when cancelling flights within their control, WestJet, Air Canada and Air Transat must offer to rebook displaced passengers — even if it means putting them on another airline.

Passengers who spoke to CBC News about the WestJet cases said they were only offered refunds.

Even though the airline admitted in 2017 that it cancelled the flights for business reasons, it told CBC News this week that the cancellations were still "a result of circumstances beyond our control."

WestJet says the incorrect information it provided passengers about the airport closures 'was an inadvertent communications error on our part.' (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

When asked why the CTA didn't order WestJet to pay compensation, the agency said it received five passenger complaints concerning compensation and the cancelled Turks and Caicos and Santa Clara flights, all of which were dealt with. 

The agency also said it didn't issue a fine because this was WestJet's first time violating transport regulations on making misleading statements. The CTA's policy of only issuing a warning to first-time offenders for this type of violation is currently under review, it added.

Around the same time, WestJet had also mistakenly blamed flight cancellations to San Juan, Puerto Rico, on hurricane damage at the airport.

The CTA said its investigation only focused on Turks and Caicos and Santa Clara. Its ruling was issued on Sept. 11, 2018.


Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won an Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact: