COVID-19: You Lost Your Vacation. Have You Lost Your Right to a Refund?

Sandy Porteous March 22, 2020

If you are a fan of Monty Python, you know that no one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition or a pandemic like COVID-19. For thousands of Canadians, going away in March is a happy tradition. Schools close for one to two weeks, college students are often on breaks and many families save all year to get away during spring break.

So the news of the pandemic came at an especially tough time for travellers. People who booked their trip to Florida and Disney World long ago had to suddenly cope with mixed messages about whether it was safe to travel or not. Some were trying to decide what to do hours before they were scheduled to leave for the airport.

Many passengers boarded flights for destinations like Hawaii on a Friday - only to have to board another flight three days later and head right back home. It was often impossible to reach the airlines and more than one traveller drove out to an airport to try to get answers.

Canadians are often not fully informed about their rights, and are too polite to demand a refund. For airlines, the prospect of offering refunds when passenger loads are at an all time low is hardly a welcome idea.

If you have ever tried to return an expensive sweater only to find out the store would only offer you a credit, you understand the dilemma for many travellers. As Canadians, we are living with uncertainty around what happens next.

Some airlines are now offering 24-month vouchers, but again - you do not need to accept this form of a credit. Can you be without those funds for an indefinite period of time when there are severe travel restrictions being announced regularly? What if an airline goes into bankruptcy?

Will your family be able to afford to travel later on - in an economic downturn? Which is why being able to get your money back for air travel is not only important for so many families, it IS your right.

It is not the responsibility of Canadian travellers to ensure that our airlines are viable. Travellers need to be able to be reimbursed if that is their wish.

Unfortunately, when it comes to who misleads travellers - the answer is airlines and individuals who represent the airlines and answer your call. Customers who are already anxious and exhausted may decide they are lucky to get anything, and so take a credit.

If you want to cancel a flight and get an online refund, for example on the Air Canada website, that is not an option. You will be prompted to queue up and wait to speak to a human at the end of the 1-800 line. So customers have to endure very long wait times to be connected with a customer service agent.

And unfortunately they are being misinformed about their rights. The agent may tell a caller that they do not have a right to a refund - when what has been reduced is the kind of compensation we used to expect if a flight was changed. Some passengers are told that due to a Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) Determination, the airline does not need to issue a refund and that the obligation to offer a full refund was cancelled by the CTA.

Which is untrue. What has changed is the option to receive extra compensation on top of a refund. Once upon a time, if the airline delayed your flight, you would be able to receive some compensation.

The CTA Determination also means passengers cannot expect to be placed on the flight of another carrier that the original airline does not have a commercial agreement with.

Which does not mean that passengers are not able to ask for a full refund and to reject a credit, if the airline changes your original reservation flight times. You are eligible to receive a refund.

Passengers need to understand that the CTA is concerned that airlines are facing huge losses and declines in passenger volumes. The Determination means that during a pandemic, airlines will be able to adjust flight schedules without having to pay compensation to someone who may arrive, for example, in Edmonton 5 hours later.

If travel agents or airline employees are trying to use that exemption as a reason to refuse refunds, that is not what the CTA Determination covers.

What can you do? Know your rights, and if you are told that refunds are not allowed and they mention the CTA Determination, ask to speak to a supervisor. Politely explain that they are incorrect and that passengers who are following government and health advisories to not travel are entitled to a full refund.

We cannot know which airlines might survive this current crisis. The first offer of a credit is just that - a first offer. You had an agreement or contract with the service provider and now - due to a worldwide crisis - that service cannot be provided.

You will be urged to change your travel plans, rebook for some future date, or take a credit because there are no fees involved, but in truth, you have the right to insist on a full refund to the original form of payment you provided (e.g., credit card).

Honourable airlines are offering to fly Canadians home for free, but for others, the goal is to deny refunding as many airfares as possible. Know your rights, and if you are told that the CTA Determination means you cannot get your money back - be clear that the determination does not affect refunds - only additional compensation that was once available.

Knowledge is power, and airlines that refuse to return the money you paid in good faith for a trip have no right to refuse your request. The decision about whether or not to book future travel (or not) belongs to the traveller who paid for the service.

Giving up on your vacation plans due to a global crisis and avoiding unnecessary travel does not mean an airline gets to hold on to your money.

Not even a pandemic trumps your right to a refund.

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