Are Canadian travellers entitled to refunds on cancelled flights?

Passenger rights advocates are encouraging Canadians to refuse travel vouchers for cancelled flights, warning that consumers are entitled to refunds by law in Canada -- a rule they say is not enforced.

“Airlines are currently stealing the public's money in Canada,” Gabor Lukacs, president of the Airline Passenger Rights group, told CTV’s NewsDay on Quibi.

“When your flight is cancelled, you are entitled to a refund. It’s the law in Canada… the difference is if Canada doesn't enforce the rights of passengers.”

Airline executive have repeatedly defended their decision not to issue refunds to customers after thousands of flights were cancelled due to COVID-19. Instead many have saddled customers with vouchers they likely won’t use in the foreseeable future, as borders remain closed amid the ongoing pandemic.

But Lukacs and other rights advocates are encouraging consumers to refuse the vouchers altogether.

“Our advice to people is do not accept the voucher. Make it very clear, if you don't accept it, [that] it’s not something that they can impose on you,” he says.

Earlier this week, executives from Air Canada, WestJet and Air Transat were questioned about these refund refusals by parliamentarians during a House of Commons health committee meeting.

During the meeting, Jared Mikoch-Gerke, manager of aviation security at WestJet Airlines Ltd., stated that an April statement from the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) said "that airline tariffs do not always provide for cash refunds, especially in cases beyond our control."

However, in a statement sent to CTVNews.ca on Tuesday, the CTA disputed Mikoch-Gerke's claim, stating that the CTA "never granted airlines the right to refuse a cash refund for a cancellation related to COVID-19."

"If a person believes they are entitled to a refund for a flight that was cancelled for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic and doesn't want to accept a voucher, they can ask the airline for a refund," the statement read.

"If a passenger thinks they are entitled to a refund and the airline refuses to provide one or offers a voucher with conditions the passenger doesn't want to accept, they can file a complaint with the CTA, which will determine if the airline complied with the terms of its tariff. Each case will be decided on its merits."

On Thursday, Air Canada quietly changed its refund policy to allow some customers to recoup their cash -- but not passengers whose trips originated in Canada.

Customers with flights originating in the European Union, Switzerland and Iceland due to the pandemic are "entitled to receive a refund," according to a document recently posted to Air Canada's website.

The statement cites an EU regulation that grants passengers "the right to choose between reimbursement, rerouting or rebooking the flight at a later date" if their trip is called off by the airline.

This comes after WestJet offered refunds to travellers whose tickets list a U.S. or U.K. city as the destination or origin, provided the flight isn't a part of a vacation package.

Lukacs notes that if the airline cancels the flight but does not provide a refund in the form of original payment, customers can dispute the claim in the form of a chargeback with their credit card company.

Chargebacks are used to protect credit card customers and are a way for consumers to dispute transactions for services that were not fulfilled. If approved by the credit card company, a refund for the transaction will be processed.

“If your credit card is being unco-operative, refuse to pay your credit card bill,” Lukacs adds.

I ACCEPTED A VOUCHER BUT IT’S ABOUT TO EXPIRE. WHAT CAN I DO?

Lukacs notes that consumers who are stuck with airline vouchers shouldn’t give up the fight just yet.

“I would simply say I didn't accept it. It was sent to me involuntarily,” he said, encouraging consumers to fight for a refund despite having the voucher.

If the airline still refuses, Lukacs says to threaten action through the credit card company.

“In most cases with most chargebacks it’s a statutory right. It’s guaranteed by your Provinces Consumer Protection Act,” he said. “It is your entitlement.”

On June 4, six consumer associations and civil society members penned a letter to the government asking that they ensure customers be refunded in their original form of payment. However, the government has yet to compel the airline to issue any refunds.

With files from CTV News’ Rachel Gilmore and The Canadian Press. 

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