Editorial – Airline Tickets: Consumers must be given a choice

By : Maryse Guénette
PHOTO CREDIT : Suhyeon Choi (Unsplash)

On June 4, six major Canadian consumer associations and civil society organizations approached the government to request that airlines be obliged to reimburse consumers whose flights were cancelled as a result of Covid-19.

Everyone understands that the current situation is unacceptable: thousands of consumers who bought airline tickets before the pandemic are unable to get a refund. For those who can’t or don’t want to postpone their trip—because they were going to visit a sick relative or to attend an event that went ahead without them or because they are old—it’s the only valid solution.

The European Union and the United States have understood this. They’ve both ordered carriers to offer refunds for flights cancelled due to Covid-19.

Not the Canadian carriers, however: they are only offering travel credit vouchers.

When the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) declared on its Website that offering such credit constituted an “appropriate approach” and that a 24-month period “would be considered reasonable in most cases,” it was to some degree sanctioning this option. And that was all it took for it to become the norm.

Coming as it does from an organization whose mandate includes providing consumer protection for air passengers, such a statement is incongruous.

In response to the outcry, the CTA qualified its position, saying it was not a “binding decision” and invited consumers who believe they are entitled to a refund and have been refused, to submit a complaint to the CTA. But how many will do that? Although some airlines have since shown more flexibility, the damage has been done.

Sometimes, in order to be entitled to simple travel credit, you need to have paid in full. You’ll also have to pay a fee, which according to some news reports, can be as high as 29% of the ticket price. And if the fare goes up between the time you receive the credit and the time of departure, you may have to pay the difference.

Travel credit may suit some people—but will it still suit them when they find out how much they have to pay? And it’s totally inappropriate for people who have lost their jobs, whether temporarily or for good. These people need their money back right now. They can’t afford to plan any other trips.

The airlines’ offer of travel credit also has the perverse effect of closing doors for consumers. For example, insurance companies will not want to reimburse those to whom such an offer has been made. And credit card issuers in Quebec, whose employees seem oblivious to the existence of chargebacks, are advising consumers to resort to arbitration, which is quite a complex process.

While travel credits have few benefits for consumers, they have numerous benefits for airlines.

They are the ones holding onto the money received from travellers—and by the way, shouldn’t a large portion of that money have been deposited in a trust account, and if it has, why isn’t it being refunded?

They are also the ones who will pocket the money paid for unused credits.

In this context, Canadian airline companies should look beyond the pandemic and think about the consequences of their refusal to reimburse. Because once the crisis is over, disgruntled consumers may choose to fly with foreign carriers.

If Canadian airlines do not offer consumers an opportunity to be reimbursed, the government, which is preparing to come to their aid, should force them to do so.

The letter to the government that we mentioned earlier is just one of the initiatives we are pursuing to ensure that consumer rights are respected. Option consommateurs had previously circulated a petition and the organization Air Passenger Rights had done the same; at the time of writing, they had collected 31,000 and 61,000 signatures respectively. In addition, numerous class actions have been launched.

We can only hope that this will make a difference, and that common sense will prevail in the favour of consumers. It needs to be said: it’s illegal everywhere in Canada to keep a consumer’s money if the service they paid for is not provided.