Consumer advocates call for airline refunds amid coronavirus pandemic

Representatives from consumer advocacy groups blasted the federal government on Tuesday, accusing it of putting the interests of airlines above those of consumers by allowing carriers to issue vouchers for cancelled flights rather than full refunds.

The comments were made by witnesses at a meeting of Parliament’s standing committee on transport, infrastructure and communities, which focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the airline industry.

Read more: ‘Verge of collapse’: Air Canada reports more service cuts, station closures in Atlantic Canada

“Passengers still have a fundamental right to a refund, regardless of the reason for the cancellation,” Gabor Lukacs, the founder of consumer group Air Passenger Rights, told the committee.

The hearing comes as airlines await an aid package from the federal government. Ottawa has said it would not issue any financial support unless airlines refunded passengers for their fares, prompting criticism from the industry, which says the federal government is unnecessarily delaying aid to the embattled sector.

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On Tuesday, Air Canada announced that it was cutting some routes in Atlantic Canada until further notice due to challenging market conditions. Those cuts follow others in the region in June, as well as similar service reductions by WestJet, which said in October that it would suspend 80 per cent of its Atlantic Canada capacity.

Click to play video 'Airport industry group calls for aid as pandemic lockdown chokes off revenue' Airport industry group calls for aid as pandemic lockdown chokes off revenue
Airport industry group calls for aid as pandemic lockdown chokes off revenue

Ian Jack, vice president of public affairs for the Canadian Automobile Association, said during the committee meeting that the route cuts in Atlantic Canada might be part of a negotiation strategy by the airlines to pressure Ottawa to make concessions to the industry.

At the meeting, Lukacs argued that Canadian law requires that passengers be reimbursed for their cancelled fares, focusing on a statement by the Canadian Transportation Agency earlier this year that he claimed provided misleading information about what travellers’ rights were with respect to refunds.

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The agency advised consumers in March that for flight disruptions beyond an airline’s control, Canada’s law only requires that the airline “ensure passengers can complete their itineraries.”

But Lukacs said that when an airline doesn’t provide a service that passengers paid for, for whatever reason, passengers are entitled to a refund under the law.

Sylvie De Bellefeuille, a lawyer with Option consommateurs, a consumer group based in Montreal, told the committee that the organization has received a record number of calls from consumers asking for information about how to obtain a refund for their airline tickets.

She added that issuing vouchers rather than full refunds was an unfair and unacceptable solution.

“This pandemic has also hit industries other than the airline industry, and hard,” De Bellefeuille said. “It is not up to consumers to finance airlines.”

Read more: Advocacy groups slam airline regulator for saying refunds not required by law

John Lawford, the executive director and general counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said prior to the committee meeting that forcing airlines to issue the refunds is the least the government could do for people who have fallen on hard times due to COVID-19.

He criticized the federal government for dealing with Canada’s airlines, that are fighting in court to quash rules that bolster compensation for passengers who experience delayed flights or damaged baggage.

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He urged the federal government to make dropping the lawsuit a condition of any aid package it issues to the airline sector.

Lawford also called for the federal government to mandate a “refund fund” into which airlines would have to put a small portion of revenue in case of an unforeseen event, like a pandemic.

© 2020 The Canadian Press