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Ian Mulgrew Published 4 April 2020
Retired CBC News-producer-turned-media-trainer Marc Gage lit up with delight when he heard a class-action lawsuit had been launched against Canadian airlines over their responses to the coronavirus crisis.
“Count me in!,” he exclaimed.
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Gage was still steaming about Air Canada’s brush-off and churlish cancel-or-modify ticket policy that refunded him barely $40 on a $500 trip called off because of public-health travel restrictions.
“Air Canada’s malevolence in helping Canadians through the latest plague to descend on the planet shows they are phoney hypocrites and they need to be called on it,” he fumed.
Tens-of-thousands of others agree, though for many the targets of their anger are WestJet, Swoop, Air Transat or Sunwing Airlines.
Montreal-based Champlain Lawyers launched the proposed class-action suit against all five major carriers over their responses to the outbreak. The 13-page statement of claim filed in Federal Court in Ottawa says passengers who had flights cancelled due to COVID-19 should be entitled to their money back, as well as damages.
The representative plaintiff named in the suit, Janet Donaldson, is only identified as a B.C. resident whose Vancouver-New York round trip on WestJet in April was cancelled as a result of the federal government’s March 13 blanket advisory against non-essential travel outside of Canada.
Lawyer Sébastien Paquette told reporters she had paid $361.39 on Jan. 14 by credit card for her ticket and, when she couldn’t get a refund, she was disappointed.
“This is a consumer-protection class action seeking to enforce each passenger’s rights to a refund for monies paid for their air tickets when they are not able to travel for reasons outside of the control of the passengers,” the claim states.
“Each of the defendants are experienced commercial airlines that have, or ought to have, proper contingency or financial planning to account for situations like COVID-19. In the alternative, each of the defendants ought to have acquired proper business interruption insurance policies to limit their exposure to situations like COVID-19.”
The claim names Swoop, WestJet, Air Canada, Air Transat and Sunwing, and says Donaldson wants the case heard in Vancouver.
The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) initially said the airlines didn’t have to give refunds if a cancellation was outside its control. But the advocacy group Air Passenger Rights complained, saying it was creating “the false impression of a legally binding determination by the CTA” that misleads consumers about their rights.
The CTA emphasized on its site that the Air Passenger Protection Regulations remained in force and unchanged.
“The CTA recognizes that this is a very challenging time for both airlines and air passengers,” said Scott Streiner, its chairman and CEO. “We’ll continue to monitor the situation closely.”
To participate in the class-action, a passenger must have purchased a ticket before March 11 for a flight to be taken after March 13.
Other litigation is expected to be filed against the airlines, who are struggling to survive the crisis by laying off workers and adopting austerity measures.
Many would-be travellers across Canada have been denied refunds as flight cancellations mount because of travel restrictions and other constraints caused by the novel coronavirus.
Those without travel insurance were generally offered a travel credit, good for 24 months, and many are angry the airlines are keeping their money.
Gage and his wife planned a trip to Yukon leaving in late May but the virus squelched that plan. They called the hotels and B&Bs — nothing but understanding.
“We got our money back without any muss or fuss,” Gage said.
He felt confident he’d get the same treatment from Air Canada — it ballyhooed its intention to treat customers fairly.
“We originally paid $555.98 for both of us, a great deal,” Gage explained. “I called to cancel but was told because I had booked economy class they would charge me $512.42 in refund charges leaving me with $42!”
He asked the airline clerk on the phone if that was a joke.
“She told me, ‘I am only repeating what the policy is Mr. Gage. I agree with you entirely but there is nothing I can do to help you.’
“Totally understandable,” Gage added. “She is just paid help, answering the phone.”
In an email, Air Canada media relations said the details of the policy are posted on the company’s website. It was offering passengers credit good for future travel, valid for 24 months from the date their flight was cancelled.
But if a customer was changing an existing booking (as opposed to buying a new ticket), then the situation was different, the media email noted. It said the company was waiving some of the fees normally charged on lower-priced tickets for such changes. But …
“In those cases, customers could incur extra charges because we are still applying our normal fare rules,” Air Canada said. “We recommend customers who have concerns to write our customer relations department and ask for a review.”
“Talk about taking advantage and ripping off people in a time of crisis. I’m sure there are thousands like me,” he said.
The class-action hasn’t been certified and none of the claims have been proven in court.