On December 30, 2021, WestJet announced the cancellation of 15% of its flights, and said it would rebook affected passengers on other flights of its own. WestJet blames the Omicron variant for the drastic move, and claims that it could not have anticipated Omicron's “rapid and unpredictable impact” on its operations.
While WestJet’s explanation might appear plausible at first sight, there are good reasons to doubt its veracity:
- WestJet’s struggle with staff shortage predates the Omicron variant.
- The Omicron variant’s extreme transmissibility has been known for more than a month.
- WestJet’s narrative is inconsistent with the airline’s recent statements.
- Air Canada does not appear to be affected by Omicron to the same extent.
- Portraying these cancellations as being outside of WestJet’s control could save the airline tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation owed to passengers.
1. History of Staffing Problems
WestJet has been struggling with inadequate staffing for several months, and prior to the Omicron variant. These staffing problems appear to be largely due to poor management decisions, including its failure to rehire experienced employees in sufficient numbers, and are unrelated to the Omicron variant.
For example, unlike pilots and flight attendants, call centre staff can work even from home and under mandatory isolation: they need only a laptop, a headset, and a fast Internet connection. Yet, passengers attempting to contact WestJet have reported excessive wait times of many hours by telephone and lack of responsiveness by email—none of which is explained by the Omicron variant.
2. The Writing on the Wall: Omicron
News reports and data about the spread of Omicron have been publicly available for everyone to read and study. WestJet’s management was no exception.
The World Health Organization (WHO) designated Omicron a “variant of concern” on November 26, 2021. Modeling shared on social media indicated Omicron being possibly 500% more infectious than the Delta variant. Two days later, Public Health Ontario (PHO) confirmed two cases of Omicron, and reported that Omicron may contain mutations associated with immune escape and enhanced transmissibility. On December 7, 2021, PHO reported further evidence suggesting increased infectivity of Omicron compared to the Delta variant.
On December 15, 2021, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) issued an advisory against non-essential international travel. The same day, the Guardian reported on data indicating that Omicron grows 70 times faster than Delta in bronchial tissues. Two days later, British Columbia introduced restrictions to curb spread, noting that “evidence indicates Omicron is more transmissible than other variants of COVID-19.”
The writing was on the wall; yet, WestJet continued to communicate “business as usual” to the public, and continued selling tickets as if there was no tomorrow. To make matters worse, WestJet launched an unprecedented attack on PHAC, claiming the travel advisory was “not based on science and data.”
3. Inconsistent Statements
Just days earlier, WestJet repeatedly told the media and the public that, unlike U.S. airlines, its operations remained unaffected by the Omicron variant, and it had no staffing problems.
- A spokesperson for Canada's WestJet said the airline was not seeing similar issues to its U.S. counterparts. (Associated Press, December 24, 2021)
- WestJet said it was appropriately staffed to support the busy holiday travel season. (CityNews, December 26, 2021)
- "We are not seeing similar issues to our U.S. counterparts and the large majority of our posted cancellations are weather related." (Canadian Press, December 27, 2021)
WestJet’s new narrative of cancelling flights due to the Omicron variant can hardly be reconciled with these public statements that were issued just days earlier.
4. Comparison with Air Canada
Airlines operating in the same geographic area are affected by the same circumstances outside their control, whether it is a snow storm or a pandemic. Yet, we do not see massive flight cancellations by Air Canada for the reasons and of the scale announced by WestJet. For example, Air Canada candidly acknowledged that it cancelled flights to Aruba as a business decision for profitability reasons.
While aviation analyst Karl Moore expects Air Canada to be soon in the same boat as WestJet, his prediction may overlook the substantial potential gains for Air Canada, both financially and in consumer goodwill, if it succeeds at avoiding large scale cancellations.
5. Follow the Money
WestJet’s new narrative that it cancelled 15% of its flights due to the Omicron variant and not because of poor management and staffing decisions could save the airline tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation owed to passengers under Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR).
The APPR distinguishes between flight cancellations that are within the carrier’s control and those outside the carrier’s control, and imposes substantially fewer obligations on airlines in the latter case. WestJet’s new narrative seeks to portray the cancellations as being outside its control, in an effort to relieve itself from most of the obligations under the APPR.
Passengers whose flight is cancelled for reasons within the airlines’ control (and not due to unexpected aircraft maintenance issues) are entitled to a choice between a full refund in the original form of payment and rapid alternate transportation, and in addition may be entitled to lump sum compensation.
- If the passenger opts for a full refund, WestJet must also pay a $400 lump sum compensation in cash per passenger (APPR, subsection 19(2)).
- If the passenger chooses alternate transportation:
- WestJet must buy them tickets on competitor airlines’ flights if WestJet cannot transport them within nine (9) hours of the original departure time on their ticket (APPR, paragraph 17(1)(a));
- WestJet must provide them with meals and accommodations while waiting for the alternate transportation (APPR, section 14); and
- WestJet must pay a lump sum compensation in cash, ranging between $400 and $1,000 per passenger, depending on the resulting delay at the final destination and whether passengers were provided with a 14-day advance notice of flight cancellation (APPR, subsection 19(1)).
Passengers whose flight is cancelled for reasons outside the airlines’ control may still choose between a full refund in the original form of payment and alternate transportation, but:
- WestJet is not responsible for meals or accommodation;
- WestJet is not required to buy tickets on competitor’s flights; and
- WestJet is required only to arrange for alternate transportation within 48 hours of the original departure on passengers’ tickets (APPR, section 18).
WestJet’s actions are lacking transparency. It is far from clear that the announced flight cancellations are “outside the carrier’s control.”
Passengers may want to investigate further before accepting WestJet’s new narrative, and may wish to seriously consider pursuing their rights in small claims court and hold WestJet to the full burden of proving its narrative.