Airlines face MPs’ frustration over health concerns, lack of refunds

Airlines face MPs’ frustration over health concerns, lack of refunds

Airlines faced a tough reception at the House of Commons health committee Monday as MPs grilled them on the lack of refunds for customers whose flights were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parliamentarians from the three main opposition parties demanded to know why Canadians who paid for a service that was never delivered have yet to get their money back.

Conservative health critic Matt Jeneroux said the lack of refunds was “unfathomable,” while Bloc Quebecois member Luc Theriault highlighted the $2.61 billion in advance ticket sales Air Canada reported in its quarterly results last month.

“It’s not your money — there’s been no transaction. Where are the funds being kept? Where are the funds?” Theriault asked a company executive.

Representatives from Air Canada, WestJet Airlines Ltd. and Transat AT defended the dearth of reimbursements by citing store credit valid for at least two years and statements by Canada’s transportation regulator.

The committee session came hours after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said public health trumps airline and tourism sector concerns around ongoing travel restrictions due to the coronavirus crisis.

“I understand how difficult this is and how frustrating this is for some people, but we know that reopening too quickly or carelessly would lead to a resurgence that might well force us to go back into lockdown, to shut down the economy once again, and nobody wants that,” Trudeau told reporters.

Air Canada and WestJet repeatedly cited an April statement by the Canadian Transportation Agency, which has not required airlines to reimburse ticket holders for flights cancelled during the pandemic.

“On April 22, the CTA did clarify its statement on vouchers that airline tariffs do not always provide for cash refunds, especially for (cases) beyond the airline’s control,” WestJet aviation security manager Jared Mikoch-Gerke told the committee.

WestJet’s international tariff — the contract between airline and passenger — states that “the total fare paid for each unused segment (of the trip) will be refunded” following a “failure to operate or refusal to transport” by the carrier.

Airlines were not the only focus of MPs’ frustration. Transport Canada officials also faced questions about refunds and health measures.

Theriault asked civil servants why Canada has not followed the lead of its counterparts at the U.S. Department of Transportation and the European Union in requiring carriers to provide refunds in order to receive financial support.

“Our understanding is that to date that has not been fully enforced,” with “a number of key European Union members” looking the other way on EU refund rules, said Lawrence Hanson, assistant deputy minister of policy at Transport Canada.

“The existing tariff never contemplated an event of this kind,” he added. “Obviously the immediate forward picture does not look particularly great…so to suddenly require paying the refunds all at once, which would be in the billions of dollars, could obviously have significant economic consequences for airlines.”

Airline revenue streams have shrunk to five per cent of pre-pandemic levels, with fleets parked and border shutdowns ongoing even as domestic travel demand gradually starts to pick up.

Last week, chief executives from 27 Canadian companies in sectors ranging from aviation to banking and telecommunications called for a “measured” reopening of the skies that would see travel resume across all provinces and between select countries.

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam has called the 14-day quarantine for arrivals from abroad a “cornerstone” of pandemic policy, New Democrat health critic Don Davies noted.

“When we start to relax our standards, we may be actually just be walking into a second phase,” he said, citing flare-ups in Australia, New Zealand and multiple U.S. states following looser restrictions.

“I’m not here to disagree with Dr. Tam. I’m not a doctor. But there are several doctors and health (authorities) around the world that are making contrary decisions,” said Ferio Pugliese, Air Canada’s vice-president of government relations.

A “calculated strategy” with “safe-to-safe air corridors” between countries with diminishing infection rates, said Howard Liebman of Transat.

Many European Union countries have begun to reopen their borders to EU and some non-EU members.

Manitoba and the Maritime provinces continue to restrict interprovincial travel, while travellers arriving in Canada from abroad must self-isolate for two weeks.

Last week, Trudeau extended a ban on non-essential travel between Canada and the U.S. until at least July 21.

“We need to make sure we are keeping Canadians safe first and foremost,” the prime minister said Monday.

Trudeau also cited financial support available across industries, including the federal wage subsidy as well as loans starting at $60 million for large companies.

Kevin Brosseau, assistant deputy minister for safety and security, pointed to mandatory measures that include face masks on board aircraft and, starting next month, temperature checks at the point of departure.

Transport Canada encourages airlines to maintain empty middle seats, but does not require the precaution. However, Brosseau said it hasn’t been ruled out. ”I can’t foreclose that as volumes go up, as people start flying again, that that may not be a measure that we take,” Brosseau added.

For now, Air Canada and WestJet block the sale of middle or adjacent seats in economy class and throughout the entire plane, respectively. Ultra-low-cost carrier Flair Airlines charges $49 to guarantee an empty adjacent seat.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2020.

Companies in this story: (TSX:AC, TSX:TRZ)

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Central zone has 20 active cases of COVID-19

Province identified 143 new cases across Alberta on Wednesday

Sylvan Lake Municipal Library going waste free with new program

The Zero Waste DIY program begins on Sept. 26 at 2 p.m. on Zoom

COVID-19: Active cases in central zone up Tuesday

Central zone active cases remains lowest of all zones

PHOTOS: Eckville graduates receive their diplomas, finally

Eckville Jr./Sr. High School held a socially distanced grad over the weekend

Central zone active cases down to 20

Province provides update

Liberals vow wage-subsidy extension to 2021, revamp of EI system in throne speech

Canadian labour market was hammered by pandemic, when lockdowns in the spring led to a loss of 3 million jobs

Canada’s active COVID-19 cases top 10,000 as daily new cases triple over the past month

Dr. Tam repeated her warning to young people, who have made up the majority of recent cases

Liberal effort to reset policy agenda panned by rivals as too much talk, not action

Trudeau said it’s ‘all too likely’ families won’t be able to gather for Thanksgiving next month

Grand jury indicts police officer in Breonna Taylor death

Officer Brett Hankison was charged with three counts of wanton endangerment

Missionary plane dedicated at Ponoka, Lacombe airports

MiracleAir flies humanitarian missions to Nicaragua

RCMP investigating after far-right groups disrupt anti-racism rally in Alberta

Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer said she respects the right of peaceful assembly, but denounces racism and violence

Refresh of Liberal government’s agenda comes amid new looming COVID-19 crisis

Lockdowns saw fed spending soar to historic levels in effort to offset pandemic’s blow to Canadians’ livelihoods

Public health officials urge Canadians to limit contacts again as COVID-19 cases rise

Canada has committed $1 billion to buy at least 154 million doses of vaccines from five different companies

Majority of Canadians support wearing masks during COVID-19, oppose protests: poll

Nearly 90 per cent felt wearing a mask was a civic duty because it protects others from COVID-19

Most Read