Here in Canada, one of the key travel-related contentions that has kicked up as a result of the pandemic is the question of airlines issuing refunds on cancelled flights. It’s an issue I’ve been tracking over the months here on Prince of Travel:
- In March, I first wrote a primer on the topic when it became obvious that Canada’s airlines had started to play games with customers and withhold refunds.
- In April, I provided an update when the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) made clear its pro-airline and anti-passenger stance with a frivolous “Statement on Vouchers”
- Then in the summer I made a YouTube video to highlight the topic when it was clear the issue was not going away anytime soon:
Well, in that respect, I must say I was genuinely surprised yesterday when WestJet made a major move in the direction of at least trying to make the issue go away eventually.
WestJet has publicly committed to issuing refunds to passengers for all flights that were cancelled by WestJet due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including basic economy fares and eligible flights for which passengers had already received funds in their WestJet Travel Bank (i.e., if the passenger had already agreed to the future travel credit instead of the full refund, even though they were entitled to the latter, they won’t be losing out).
For a matter that has troubled so many Canadian travellers for so long, any move of this type was bound to be laden with controversy. Some folks will be happy to see the light at the end of the tunnel on this matter; others might believe WestJet has not gone far enough in issuing refunds; yet others might view it as a blatant PR play with ulterior motives.
Let’s go through the details of exactly what WestJet is committing to and what their customers can expect, and then I’ll share my take on the situation.
On Which Flights Will WestJet Issue Refunds?
You can view WestJet’s full update on their website, as well as the update entitled “Refunds – It’s About Time” on the corporate blog.
If you had booked a WestJet flight for travel since March 2020, and your flight was cancelled by WestJet, the airline has been largely refusing to provide refunds until now, insisting that you accept a future travel credit (i.e., a deposit into your WestJet Travel Bank, which can be used towards future travel).
Over the summer, WestJet and its fellow Canadian airlines have been gradually complying with refund requests for itineraries departing out of the US, UK, and European Union due to local passenger regulations, but the Canadian Transportation Agency’s well-documented spinelessness meant that the vast majority of itineraries (i.e., those departing from Canada) remained exempt from being refunded by the airlines.
Now, WestJet has committed to issuing refunds to the original form of payment for all passengers affected by flights that were cancelled by WestJet due to COVID-19. This include all fare classes, even the lowest Basic fares which are non-refundable by the passenger in ordinary times – except, of course, they are refundable when the airline cancels the flight, which is exactly what happened here.
(There’s a very amusing sidebar to this story, which we’ll delve into a little bit below.)
If you’re eligible for a refund from WestJet, you will be “proactively contacted by WestJet, beginning with those flights cancelled by the airline at the start of the pandemic”. WestJet asks guests to have patience as they wait to be contacted, with an estimated timeline of six to nine months for all refunds to be completed.
Importantly, WestJet will not be issuing refunds to the following customers (who are nevertheless entitled to one), as things stand:
- Customers who purchased WestJet Vacations packages. On its website, WestJet states that “WestJet Vacations guests will continue to follow the process already established” – a deposit into the WestJet Travel Bank to be used for future travel.
- Customers who cancelled their flights and accepted a future travel credit of their own volition when the pandemic was first setting in. There will surely be a fair few customers in this position who followed the Government of Canada’s guidance to “avoid non-essential travel” as of early March and cancelled their own flights, before it became clear that the airlines were going to unfairly hold on to their money.
Air Canada & WestJet’s Twitter Spat
When the announcement was first made, WestJet had stated the following in the frequently asked questions:
Why can’t I get a refund to the basic fare I purchased?
We are focused on reinstating our refund practice to what it was pre-COVID. This is in line with that we have never offered the ability to refund to original form of payment on basic fares as they are non-refundable.
…which is obviously completely off-base. A passenger cannot request a refund on a Basic fare if they were to cancel the trip, but if the airline cancels, then those fares were always entitled to refunds.
From a legal perspective, the pandemic had made it impossible for WestJet to fulfill the contract of a Basic fare – the key element of which is, you know, air travel – and so the contract ought to be deemed “frustrated” under the Frustrated Contracts Act and a refund issued to the original form of payment.
Anyway, even though Basic fares were being excluded, WestJet’s move had clearly struck a nerve over at Air Canada HQ. Air Canada came out with the following tweet:
Misleading statement! @WestJet is just now catching up to our policy to refund refundable fares. We have already refunded over $1.2 Billion in refundable fares to date.
— Air Canada (@AirCanada) October 21, 2020
You can just feel the bitterness in that tweet, as though Air Canada was blindsided and angered by WestJet deviating from the oligopoly’s accepted practices and dabbling with the dark arts of… doing something that was in the best interest of the passenger.
Clearly, the tweet didn’t go down very well at all, and Air Canada quickly found itself getting “ratioed” – when a tweet gets more replies and quotes than “likes”, a clear sign in social media circles that it has not gone down well and perhaps shouldn’t have been tweeted in the first place.
WestJet, for its part, responded in kind:
Let’s clear the air. We’re offering refunds for guests if we cancelled their flight. Even the lowest cost tickets will be refunded to original form of payment if WestJet caused the cancellation.
— WestJet (@WestJet) October 22, 2020
Did you see what they did there?
That’s right, they doubled down on the whole “actually being nice to passengers” thing by actually extending their commitment to provide refunds – “even [on] the lowest cost tickets”.
Sure enough, the segment about Basic fares not being eligible for refunds was quickly deleted from WestJet’s website, and as things stand now, customers who purchased Basic fares will be eligible for a refund as they are very much entitled to under the law.
My Take on the Situation
The matter of refunds on cancelled flights has been drawn out in Canada for far too long, and I’m glad to see that WestJet has publicly committed to bringing an end to this matter by issuing refunds to customers. I think it’s fair to say that this public commitment represents good news for WestJet customers who were due refunds, who can now be assured that they will receive one eventually, even if it’s “six to nine months” in the future.
At the same time, we shouldn’t be overly generous with praise, because WestJet’s actions are merely bringing them into compliance with the law after persistent and flagrant noncompliance since the very beginning.
Moreover, like I mentioned in my video on the topic, airlines are for-profit businesses who act out of their own interest and always act accordingly.
WestJet’s portrayal of the decision to issue refunds as a representation of their role as a kind airline with an empathetic ear is very much exactly that: a portrayal, a PR move, when in reality Canada’s airlines always been obligated to provide refunds on cancelled flights under the law, and it was only through weak enforcement by the CTA that they got away with it for so long.
A PR move like this is perfectly understandable from a business perspective, of course, but one has to wonder whether the upcoming federal court hearing on the matter of refunds in the case of Janet Donaldson vs. Swoop Inc. et al (Federal Court File T-428-20), scheduled to be heard in Vancouver on November 2, had anything to do with the timing of this announcement.
Speaking of PR, I can understand Air Canada’s motivation to put out a snarky tweet like they did. After all, a large portion of Canadians, especially infrequent travellers, often choose between our two largest airlines for reasons of sentiment rather than the strength of either airline’s products.
So at a moment when their rival airline’s move was generating plenty of buzz, Air Canada may have felt it was important to say something and avoid being seen by their loyalists as reactionary. Rather than appear as though they’ve been beaten to the first move on this “kind-hearted” gesture, Air Canada’s message was to say that they’ve been the good guys and have happily provided refunds all along.
Except… they haven’t.
While the motivation for the tweet is understandable, the tweet itself was ridiculous, and probably should’ve been vetted a few more times before being sent out.
WestJet had quite clearly committed to refunding the vast majority of fares on flights that they cancelled (at the time, all fares except Basic fares), not only the refundable fares – so Air Canada’s factually off-base tweet simply comes across as petty.
At least it gave WestJet the opportunity to double-down and commit to refunding Basic fares as well, addressing some of the criticism they were receiving in the wake of the announcement while rubbing salt in the wounds of their rival as well. Twitter drama rarely results in anything good these days, but hey, consumers have at least gotten a win out of it (or perhaps more accurately, a stalemate from the jaws of defeat).
For its part, Air Canada should heed the notion that “actions speak louder than words.” Rather than issuing petty messages over Twitter, they ought to put out a press release and make a similar commitment if they want to win back the fairly significant chunk of business that is now surely headed WestJet’s way.
Ultimately, WestJet’s announcement has given its customers confidence of receiving refunds in due course, and may even compel Canada’s other airlines to making similar commitments – and that’s a good thing compared to before.
We can debate all day long about the fact these refunds should’ve been issued back in March, or the injustice of a further processing time of up to nine months when many Canadian households have been separated from large sums of money for so long already, or even the fact that WestJet is still failing to meet its legal obligations to provide refunds to WestJet Vacations customers.
There are still plenty of skirmishes to be fought in the battle for refunds on cancelled flights, but WestJet’s announcement yesterday marked a positive development for many of its customers. At a time when there’s far too much negativity in the world and especially in the travel industry, I’m choosing to focus on the positive stuff.
WestJet, congrats on being the first to publicly set yourselves apart from the rest in an area where Canada’s airlines truly have not covered themselves in glory. I hope other airlines will follow in your footsteps – whether compelled by market forces or upcoming legal proceedings – so that we as the Canadian travelling public can put this ugly fiasco behind us.
In a landmark move among Canada’s airlines, WestJet will begin issuing refunds to customers whose flights were cancelled by the airline during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Work will begin on contacting customers and processing refunds as of November 2, starting with customers whose plans were first affected back in March and then proceeding chronologically, with the overall process estimated to take six to nine months to complete.
Do airlines deserve praise for complying with the law after eight months of brazenly flouting it? I’m not so sure. At the same time, there’s no denying that the airline refunds situation here in Canada is now looking more optimistic than before.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on WestJet’s move and what you make of the ongoing refunds situation at this juncture, so please do share in the comments.