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‘It’s just not right’: Passengers call out WestJet for breaching rebooking rules

MONTREAL — On a frigid Saturday earlier this month, Mindy Watson learned that her family’s flight that day from Edmonton to Toronto, en route to Cuba, was cancelled.
Meagan Watson, left, and her wife Mindy are seen in a undated handout photo with their luggage. The Watsons were among thousands of WestJet customers whose trips were cancelled amid an extreme cold snap in Alberta earlier this month. Many say the airline refused to book them within two days despite a regulatory obligation to do so in most cases. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Watson family, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

MONTREAL — On a frigid Saturday earlier this month, Mindy Watson learned that her family’s flight that day from Edmonton to Toronto, en route to Cuba, was cancelled.

WestJet offered to rebook their Varadero vacation on Sunday — not the following day, but eight days later on Jan. 21.

"My wife is Canadian military and needs to be back on base at CFB Comox on Jan. 22," Watson said. Her daughter needed to clock into her nursing shift the same day, and another family member on the trip — a veteran with disabilities — had to be home for appointments.

One agent told her he was not allowed to book them on another airline, she said, adding that multiple representatives said the same.

They ended up scrapping the trip, a getaway the family had been looking forward to for months.

Watson was among thousands of WestJet customers whose flights were cancelled amid an extreme cold snap in Alberta earlier this month. And many say the airline would not reschedule them within the required window, in what one advocate framed as just the latest example of a failure to uphold travellers' rights.

If a carrier has to call off a trip for reasons outside its control — severe weather, for example — Canada’s passenger rights charter requires it to rebook passengers on its own planes or those of a partner airline within 48 hours. If it can’t, it must put them on board “the next available flight that is operated by any carrier” to reach their destination.

The Canadian Press has spoken or emailed with more than two dozen passengers who say they were not rebooked within the prescribed time frame — many of them for WestJet trips scheduled this month, but others for flights over the past couple of years across several airlines.

Calgary-based WestJet says it rebooks customers, including with rival airlines, after cancellations in accordance with federal rules.

“We understand how frustrating it is when travel doesn’t go as planned during extreme weather events and are committed to our guests and ensuring their safe and expedient journey,” spokeswoman Madison Kruger said in an email.

"We sincerely apologize to our guests who were impacted by the extreme weather events of the past week, but safety will always be our first priority," she said. 

Kruger said the airline rebooks with a number of different carriers.

“WestJet books reaccommodation flights on partner and non-partner airlines during irregular operations for domestic and international flights in compliance with the (passenger rights charter) and in certain circumstances as a gesture of goodwill.”

Recordings of phone conversations between passengers and WestJet agents suggest that isn't always the case.

WestJet cancelled Winnipeg resident Kelly Regula’s connecting flight back home from Toronto on Jan. 12. In recordings of her phone conversations with airline agents shared with The Canadian Press, company representatives say they were barred from booking her on one of the multiple Air Canada flights apparently available that Friday, slotting her into a Monday departure with WestJet instead — well over 48 hours later.

Regula wound up booking a trip with Air Canada for herself, her husband and child at a price of $2,855.

“It’s just not right," she said. "But I can see why people just give up. It’s exhausting.”

Ashley Armstrong, whose Saskatoon-Orlando flight was also cancelled by WestJet on Friday, Jan. 12, was rebooked for the following Wednesday even after she highlighted other trip options.

“There is an Air Canada flight that travels on Sunday, and so I don't understand why we couldn't get booked onto that flight,” she told the agent the next day, according to a recording she made and shared with The Canadian Press.

“I'm unable to do interline stuff. I can only deal with WestJet,” he replied.

Asked about Armstrong and Regula's experiences, WestJet said it had forwarded their files to its guest team for review to ensure the airline's policies were properly applied.  

Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez told The Canadian Press on Thursday that airlines "can't and they shouldn't" get away with consumer rights violations. "They have to respect that."

An overhaul of the passenger rights charter is underway, he noted, with stricter rules expected to take effect this year.

Some passengers said carriers informed them of a cancellation by email and that a message on rebooking options would follow — but it never actually landed in their inbox.

Even when it does, customers can spend hours waiting — on the phone or in person — to try for a different booking.

Colin MacRae called the number given to make alternate arrangements after his Toronto-Calgary flight on Dec. 23 was cancelled and he was rebooked on a flight three days later.

"After being on hold for over six hours, we were asked if we wished for a callback. We said yes, we would. They then scheduled their 'earliest possible callback,' which was for 8 a.m. on the 30th of December — the same day as our scheduled return flight," MacRae said.

Some customers, like Regula, simply rebook with another airline themselves and hope to reclaim the cost from the original carrier later. This requires filling out a form on the airline's website and waiting 30 days for a response. If it's denied, passengers can file a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency, a process can take up to two years due to a backlog of about 64,000.

Gabor Lukacs, president of the Air Passenger Rights consumer advocacy group, says he believes airlines have been failing to meet rebooking requirements since they came into force in 2019.

“I believe it’s very widespread, and it’s one of the prime examples of airlines blatantly sabotaging the (regulations) with complete impunity," he claimed.

To stress the regulations' intent, he pointed to a 2022 federal impact assessment stating "that large carriers will have to rebook the passenger on the next available flight of any carrier, including competitors."

The Canadian Transportation Agency needs to crack down on rule breakers, he said.

Fines have shot up from a total of $725,000 in 2022-23 to $1.17 million so far this fiscal year, which ends March 31.

But that tally is a drop in the sea of revenue that carriers earn each year — Air Canada alone took in $6.34 billion in the first nine months of 2023. And the penalties were spread across foreign and domestic airlines, as well as railways.

The agency's enforcement team tracks complaints to scan for a pattern of contraventions, and looks to impose fines when it sees a problem as "systemic," said Tom Oommen, the agency's director general of analysis and outreach, in an interview.

"So far, we haven't found that yet," he said of rebooking violations.

The agency plans to ratchet up its maximum fines by a factor of 10 as part of upcoming regulatory reforms, Oommen said.

Over the past four years, the regulator has issued a total of $16,700 in fines for breaches around rebooking. All 30 instances involved WestJet and Sunwing — since bought by WestJet.

The two carriers are not the only targets of customer ire. Last week, a B.C.-based tour operator launched a $28,000 lawsuit against Air Canada, aiming to recoup money it spent on taxis, hotels and flights when 31 British Columbians found themselves stranded in Toronto after heading off for a two-week tour of Newfoundland in June 2022.

The airline offered to book the passengers of Wells Gray Tours three to five days after the cancellation, according to the filing. None of the allegations has been proven in court and Air Canada did not respond to a request for comment about the suit.

As for Mindy Watson, after calling off their Cuban getaway and rebooking a flight back home to Vancouver Island for Jan. 14, the family was again hit with a cancellation and rebooked for three days later.

“We couldn’t incur any more expenses," she said. “We have been trapped in Edmonton for days, waiting to see if today's booking actually happens.”

That flight too fell through. They finally touched down in Comox, B.C., at 3 a.m. last Friday — nearly a week after they tried to leave on vacation, without ever taking one.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2024.

— With files from Mia Rabson in Ottawa

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Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press