Thousands sign petition calling for flight refunds amid COVID-19 cancellations

Thousands of Canadians have added their names to an online petition calling on the federal government to require airlines to reimburse passengers whose flights were cancelled as a result of COVID-19.

The petition says, rather than receiving refunds, many Canadians whose travel plans were disrupted by the pandemic have received vouchers instead.

"These travel credits come with restrictive terms and conditions, including that they must be used within 24 months, that they are non-transferable or that they do not provide any price guarantee," reads the petition.

"Many consumers will not be able to use these credits within the time limits imposed by air carriers due to financial or health problems or the fact that the risks related to COVID-19 have not yet been eliminated," it continues.

Put forward by Marie-Eve Dumont, a communications adviser with Montreal-based consumer rights group Option Consommateurs, and sponsored by Bloc Quebecois MP Xavier Barsalou-Duval, the House of Commons appeal was open for signatures as of May 15. At the time of publication, more than 13,000 names had signed on.

In a statement to CTVNews.ca, Barsalou-Duval says he’s not surprised by the success of the petition given the amount of people it impacts.

"The Trudeau government must put an end to this practice of airlines which are confiscating the money of their customers to stay afloat. I understand that airlines may have difficulties, but citizens also need their money to pay their bills. This is why no help from the government should be given to them until they refund people," he said.

The airline sector has been hit hard by the extensive domestic and international travel restrictions imposed to control the spread of COVID-19. On May 15, Air Canada released a statement saying it expects to lay off "approximately 50 to 60 percent" of its workforce as a result of declining revenues.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stayed mum on whether his government plans to bail out the company and others carriers struggling to keep employees on their payrolls. He has nonetheless encouraged businesses to tap into the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy program and the Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility to access direct loans.

He was pressed again on Thursday about why the government hasn’t chosen to implement a sector-wide provision mandating passenger reimbursements.

"We recognize how impacted air travel and airlines are by this COVID-19 pandemic, we also recognize that many Canadians are out of pocket for tickets that they are obviously not going to be using," Trudeau said during his press briefing outside of Rideau Cottage in Ottawa.

"We’re looking at what other countries have done on these measures and we’re looking to make sure Canadians are supported financially through this time but that also we’re going to come back with airlines that function here in Canada for the long-term. Getting that balance right will be delicate but it’s something we’re working on."

Air Canada has stated on their website that while airline cancellations "can lead to a refund" under normal circumstances, cancellations caused by COVID-19 are "beyond our control." They instead offer travel vouchers for non-refundable tickets to be used within two years.

The Canadian Transportation Agency issued a statement at the beginning of the pandemic about regulations on reimbursement for the airline sector, echoing a similar sentiment.

"For flight disruptions that are outside an airline's control, the Canada Transportation Act and Air Passenger Protection Regulations only require that the airline ensure passengers can complete their itineraries," it reads.

"It's important to consider how to strike a fair and sensible balance between passenger protection and airlines' operational realities in these extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances"

Amid mounting concerns from customers, the regulator has since clarified these comments in a follow-up FAQ on their website.

"If you think that you're entitled to a refund for a flight that was cancelled for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic and you don't want to accept a voucher, you can ask the airline for a refund."

As air travel slowly ramps up with an easing of COVID-19 restrictions in the coming months, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says there are conversations happening between the government and industry about how to uphold public health standards.

“Have a plan and let us see what that is. [The airline] sector is trying to put together all the different elements, layers of protection that it needs in order for traveller confidence to be built up,” said Tam on Thursday.

Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos said, while he understands the challenges faced by airlines and the desire to start increasing flight travel, the safety of workers is of upmost priority.

“We do understand that many companies including air companies are going through difficult times, but protecting the health and safety of workers is absolutely essential,” said Duclos.

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