Federal support for Canadian airlines contingent on refunding customers; some passengers still waiting

The airline industry might soon get financial support but it will come with a catch.

The federal government says airlines will need to provide refunds to passengers whose flights were cancelled.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau laid out the requirement as he announced that the government is ready to respond to the sector's desperate pleas for federal assistance by launching talks later this week.

Many passengers have received credits or vouchers after cancelled trips due to COVID-19, but not full refunds.

“I would like it back in cash,” says Dr. Sarah Giles.

Dr. Giles has mixed feelings about the airline that she uses to fly to treat patients in the remote parts of Ontario and the Northwest Territories. 

“I feel like I’m in a long-term abusive relationship with Air Canada,” she said. 

She’s frustrated, because she has a $700 dollar credit from a vacation that was cancelled back in May, but she’s had a difficult time trying to use the credit since. 

“I went to try and use it again for a much cheaper flight and the woman said, ‘I don’t think you want to do that.’ I asked why not, and she said that I lose the rest of the voucher value.”

Dr. Giles says she'd like to have the credit refunded. 

Ben Morrison's March trip to the Dominican Republic was cancelled. He says he got most of his money back from his credit card but Sunwing still owes him the rest.

“They won’t give us the credit voucher, nor the five-hundred, so we’re just out of pocket that much,” he said.

That money might soon end up back in his pocket. The federal government announced that it is working on financial support for the Canada’s airline industry, but only if they return money to passengers for the trips that never happened.

Canada's commercial airlines have seen passenger levels drop by as much as 90 per cent since the pandemic hit, forcing them to furlough hundreds of pilots and technicians and discontinue dozens of regional routes.

Air Canada, Sunwing and WestJet are waiting for more details before commenting. 

However, Westjet announced on Oct. 21 that they would process refunds for all passengers—before this announcement was made.

In a written statement, a Westjet spokesperson says, “Despite the Canadian Transportation Agency confirming travel vouchers can be an appropriate approach, WestJet announced October 21 it would begin providing refunds for all travellers, regardless of fare class booked where WestJet initiated the cancellation. This move made WestJet the first national airline in Canada to do so. WestJet remains focused on expediting those refunds as promptly as possible.”

Air Passenger Rights’ advocate Gábor Lukács says the government's announcement lacks detail, and that passengers are already entitled to refunds.

“The first step should be a clear commitment from the government to enforce passengers’ fundamental rights to a refund. It has been the law for the past sixteen years, and the law has not changed.”

Dr. Giles continues to fly for her work. She says she would like to take that vacation but would rather not have to pay for it twice.

With files from Canadian Press.