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Canadians Frustrated By Air Carriers' Voucher Reimbursements Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

© AFP 2021 / Cathryn ATKINSON An airplane taking off from Vancouver International Airport
An airplane taking off from Vancouver International Airport - Sputnik International
TORONTO (Sputnik) - According to FlightAware data, more than 36,000 flights were canceled last week, with hundreds of thousands of flights having been grounded since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Orkhan Azimov, from Edmonton, Alberta, said that Canadians are learning the hard way that being compensated for cancelled flights comes with a caveat and shared his recent experience.

In early March, he arranged for his mother to visit him in Edmonton and then return to Toronto on 28 March. He booked the flight before the Canadian government informed the populace to avoid non-essential travel abroad and around the time Health Minister Patty Hajdu said that the risk to Canadians of being infected with the novel coronavirus remained low.

Things changed on 23 March, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau informed Canadians to go home and stay home in order to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Azimov recalled. Because his mother was in her late 50s and was suffering from multiple underlying medical conditions, Azimov said she was among the individuals with the highest risk to potentially contract the virus. Azimov said he tried for several days to contact the air carrier Flair Airlines to rectify the situation. When he finally reached an airline representative, he was given two choices: either his mother would fly as scheduled at her own risk, or she could be offered a voucher. While Azimov decided to have his mother get a voucher, he also pointed out that the voucher application had not been processed as of 13 April. 

Azimov said Flair Airlines told him they were "offering what is reasonable," prompting him to reach out to federal officials. However, he was told by the officials that the airline was acting within their rights.

"How am I supposed to stay home unless necessary, if companies like Flair Air are acting like that? How are we supposed to stay safe if big guys are always making a profit, and it is us, the public, who are bleeding money in such a difficult time",  Azimov added.

Passengers have often said they have been dissatisfied because travel vouchers come with limitations, and some passengers have seen the cost to redeem the vouchers double from the price of the original ticket, as airlines do not offer price guarantees. Numerous passengers have echoed sentiments similar to those of Azimov and have left angry posts online saying the airlines have left them out in the cold. Some passengers’ have reasoned that since the airlines were receiving financial aid from the government, they could do more than just offer vouchers.

The airline industry, however, contends that companies would be left destitute if they paid out refunds for all canceled flights.

"The key element for us is to avoid running out of cash so refunding the canceled ticket for us is almost unbearable, financially speaking", International Air Transportation Association (IATA) Director General Alexandre De Juniac said in an online conference last Tuesday.

Air Canada said in a statement the following day that with domestic and international travel grounded to a halt, capacity has dropped by 85 to 90 percent and revenue losses have exceeded 30 percent.

The Canadian government acted quickly to offer the country’s airlines a lifeline in the form of an Emergency Wage Subsidy and said it is considering additional stimulus measures. Air Canada confirmed on Wednesday that it has adopted the government's Emergency Wage Subsidy and Flair Airlines followed suit later in the day.

Canada's second-largest carrier, WestJet, declined to comment, citing legal constraints as passengers pursue class-action lawsuits against the airline.

The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) said in a statement that current regulations require the airlines to honor itineraries and also strike the right balance between justly reimbursing travelers and ensuring their economic viability. Consequently, the CTA concluded that a voucher-based approach was appropriate at this time of severe economic downturn.

"While any specific situation brought before the CTA will be examined on its merits, the CTA believes that, generally speaking, an appropriate approach in the current context could be for airlines to provide affected passengers with vouchers or credits for future travel, as long as these vouchers or credits do not expire in an unreasonably short period of time (24 months would be considered reasonable in most cases)", the statement said.

A Transport Canada spokesperson said that the federal department was working with the airlines to find an amicable solution.

"We understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted air travel and we are actively monitoring the situation. We are working with airlines to try and find solutions. Any additional measures relating to airlines or air travel would be announced in due course", Senior Communications Advisor Alexandre Desjardins said. "We expect air carriers will do their best to work with passengers, their partners and others in the transportation sector to provide the assistance they can under these extraordinary circumstances."

According to air passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs, the CTA does not appear to have the consumers’ best interest at heart.

"The CTA appears to be favoring airlines over passengers, which is impermissible for a body acting in a quasi-judicial role", Lukacs added.

As a result, the advocacy group Lukacs founded, Air Passenger Rights, is taking the CTA to court. Air Passenger Rights is seeking to have the CTA statement on vouchers include a disclaimer that the statement has no legal bearing and ultimately have it removed. Lukacs has also started a petition on calling on the federal government to step in and mandate refunds for affected travelers. The petition has so far garnered almost 27,000 signatures. Air Passenger Rights has also produced an extensive guide for passengers seeking reimbursement.

By contrast, the United States and the European Union have taken a tougher stance with respect to the airlines reimbursing passengers. The US Department of Transportation issued an order on 3 April requesting that carriers provide prompt refunds when cancellations or significant delays occur, or when the passenger chooses to decline the airlines' offer. The European Union has taken a similar approach, rejecting the air carriers' plea and enforcing the union-wide refund obligations.

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