Edmonton

Travelling during Omicron? Prepare for headaches, Edmonton travel agent says

As many Canadians scramble to rearrange travel plans in the wake of the Omicron surge and mass flight cancellations, an Edmonton travel agent says she’s hearing from people struggling to reach airlines.

Omicron, weather tying up airline phone lines

Josh Borden waits near the departures board at the Edmonton Internation Airport. Borden, a Halifax resident, was stuck at the airport overnight when his connecting flight was cancelled. (Paige Parsons/CBC)

A surge of Omicron cases, winter weather delays and staffing shortages has created a perfect storm for air travellers across the country. 

Josh Borden was supposed to be on a red eye flight home to Halifax on Tuesday night. Instead, he spent the night in the Edmonton International Airport.

"Sleeping on a bench, with my feet up on one bag, my feet on the other bag. People running around. There was havoc everywhere, trying to get home, people crying," said Borden.

Borden is on his way home from a Christmas trip to see his girlfriend in Kelowna, B.C. Edmonton was supposed to be a short layover, but he says after a few hours of delay, he and his fellow passengers bound for Halifax were told the flight was cancelled. 

Josh Borden scans the departures board at the Edmonton Internation Airport. Borden, a Halifax resident, was stuck at the airport overnight when his connecting flight was cancelled. (Paige Parsons/CBC)

He's booked on a new flight for 11 p.m. Wednesday, but he's worried it will get cancelled too. 

"I just can't wait to get home. I really can't," he said.

As many Canadians scramble to rearrange travel plans in the wake of the Omicron surge and mass flight cancellations, an Edmonton travel agent says travellers will need to be patient and expect to wait many hours to reach an airline representative by phone.

"Probably the most difficult to get through right now is WestJet, their hold lines can be, gosh, seven, eight, nine hours to get through to them," said Rhonda Sveahun, a travel agent with Paull Travel. 

Sveahun said that while airline schedule changes have become a regular part of the pandemic, over the last month things have escalated, and frustrations are climbing.

"Over the Christmas season there were more people that were travelling, and due to weather delays and the Omicron variant has kind of put more challenges into play," she said. 

Sveahun said people who booked trips on their own are reaching out to her office for assistance with getting through to airlines, but she said they can't help people in that position because of privacy issues with reservations.

Rhonda Sveahun is a travel agent with Paull Travel. (Paull Travel.)

She said travel agents acting on behalf of their clients also have to call and wait in queue for hours. 

WestJet is requesting that only customers with a flight in the next 72 hours try calling, and Sveahun recommends people who have several days before their flight go to the WestJet website and request a call-back.

But if the flight is imminent, the only option is to call and hope to get through.

On Dec. 30, WestJet announced it had been forced to cut 15 per cent of its scheduled flights through the end of January because so many employees are out sick with the Omicron variant. 

On Tuesday, a WestJet spokesperson declined an interview request and directed CBC to a web page where it is updating the projected number of flights to be cancelled and providing a count of staff with confirmed active cases of COVID-19, which was at 362 that day.

"We could not have anticipated the rapid and unpredictable impact of the Omicron variant on our people and operations, coupled with prolonged frigid temperatures across Western Canada and global staffing shortages," WestJet's interim chief executive Harry Taylor said in a statement on Dec. 30.

WestJet is not alone, as hundreds of flights across Canada operated by Air Canada, Flair and other airlines were cancelled over the holidays.

Gabor Lukacs, president of Air Passenger Rights, advises travellers whose flights have been cancelled or changed on short notice to take advocacy into their own hands.

"For most passengers, as I see it, the way to go is to document what they're doing … and then to sue the airline in small claims court and getting recovery that way," Lukacs said.

Lukacs advises documenting conversations with airline staff over the phone and in-person. Travellers who find their gate or check-in counter abandoned should take photos or video, he said.

Travellers can also claim compensation for cancelled flights and other trip disruptions through the Air Passenger Protection Regulations.

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