July 22nd, 2024

‘It’s been hell’: Customers frustrated over treatment by WestJet during strike

By Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press on July 5, 2024.

Passengers are seen in the WestJet check-in area at Pearson International Airport, in Toronto on June 29, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

Travellers expressed frustration this week over WestJet’s response after the airline cancelled more than 1,200 flights due to a strike by plane mechanics, leading advocates to accuse it of breaching consumer protection rules.

Messages and social media posts from some of the 150,000-plus affected passengers conveyed exasperation over hours spent on hold with customer service, the carrier’s failure to rebook them on other airlines and flight cancellation notices that informed them, “fees may apply.”

Tina McIntosh was set to fly to Kelowna, B.C., from Brandon, Man., last Sunday after her great-grandmother’s funeral. She learned at 10 p.m. the day before departure that the trip had been cancelled.

Her partner’s flight was rebooked for three days after the original takeoff time, while the reservations for her and her daughter were “just completely dropped,” leaving them stranded in Brandon, she said.

After remaining on hold for 17 hours over the weekend – she never got through to customer service – the family rented a car, drove two and a half hours to Winnipeg, stayed at a hotel and booked a new flight for Monday, McIntosh said, calling the experience a “fiasco.”

She said the extra costs totalled $2,438.

“It’s been hell to go and have a funeral and deal with all this. I’m exhausted.”

WestJet has repeatedly apologized to customers and said it offered them a refund if they weren’t able to be rebooked within 48 hours, in accordance with Canada’s passenger rights charter.

However, if airlines can’t make new reservations within that time span, the Air Passenger Protection Regulations also require airlines to book travellers on “the next available flight” from any carrier, including competitors, if they turn down the refund – a choice customers say WestJet did not give them.

“I was one of the people for whom WestJet said they ‘could no longer accommodate a rebooking’ and (we) were offered only a refund,” said B.C. resident April Miller, whose flight with her child from Phoenix to Kelowna was called off last weekend.

“I only got home yesterday afternoon after six days of flight cancellations. I had eight different itineraries cancelled and never once managed to get through to an agent after more than 30 hours of being on hold,” she said Friday.

David Smith said the airline alerted him four days after his cancelled flight to Costa Rica that he had been rebooked. But Smith was already in Central America, having bought tickets with other carriers. Cancelling the rebooked flight would incur a $200 fee, he said, while the remaining refund would only be in WestJet travel credit.

WestJet did not respond to questions about the “cancel fee” that customers were alerted to.

The company said federal regulations require no compensation for hotels and meals when travel disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control, such as a strike.

Air Passenger Rights advocacy group president Gabor Lukacs says travellers are entitled to reimbursement for flights they booked with a rival and – in the case of international trips – for hotel, food and other costs, citing the Montreal Convention, a multilateral treaty on compensation for air travellers.

He said the obligation to rebook falls on carriers, with travellers holding no responsibility to prod them into doing so.

“The onus does not rest with the passenger,” states a 2009 decision from the Manitoba Court of King’s Bench that draws on the Montreal Convention.

“That’s a clear obligation and WestJet has been systematically refusing to comply with it,” claimed Lukacs.

WestJet said it has been doing everything in its power to help travellers and revamp operations.

“Our teams across WestJet are working diligently to support all impacted guests as quickly as possible,” said spokeswoman Madison Kruger in an email.

Fallout from last weekend’s work stoppage prompted the airline to pull its float from the Calgary Stampede on Friday, a hometown event it has sponsored for decades. The move was “purely people-related,” given the recent strain on staff, said WestJet spokeswoman Morgan Bell.

On June 28, some 680 mechanics walked off the job despite a directive for binding arbitration by Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan. The country’s labour board ruled that the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association was within its rights to strike, catching WestJet and Ottawa off guard and forcing the Calgary-based company back to the bargaining table with the union.

The two sides reached a deal Sunday night, but not before tens of thousands of Canadians found their travel plans for the Canada Day long weekend upended.

Jamie Greiff said WestJet cancelled her flight home to Calgary from Los Angeles this week “after allowing us to check in and pay for our bag.”

Greiff, who was travelling with her husband, 15-year-old son and one of his friends, said she received a text that they would be rebooked within 48 hours – only to receive “radio silence” from the airline since.

The group managed to book a flight to Seattle, catch an Uber ride to the border, cross on foot and then find a taxi to a car rental outfit to begin the nearly 10-hour drive home.

The extra costs totalled $3,861, not including the baggage fee for the cancelled flight, Greiff said, calling the company “an embarrassment.”

Whether flights nixed in the lead-up to and aftermath of the strike – roughly 40 per cent of the cancellations – qualify as within the airline’s control, and thus subject to heftier compensation requirements, remains a matter of dispute.

Small claims court is one route to possible reimbursement should the airline reject a request. Customers can also file a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency.

However, the backlog at the tribunal sits at a record high that tops 72,000, with some applicants waiting up to two years for their claim to be resolved – in some cases only to have the airline challenge the decision in court.

“I’m afraid we’re going to fall between the cracks,” said John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

Unless airlines and agencies act more diligently to ensure consumer protections, business may suffer, he warned.

“People eventually dump this idea of flying to Europe in the summer because you’re going to get stranded in Regina for two days.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2024.

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