FILE – An Air Canada Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft is shown next to a gate at Trudeau Airport in Montreal on March 13, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

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

Transport Canada officials also faced questions about refunds and health measures

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.

READ MORE: Travel will have to wait, despite calls from Canada’s business leaders, Trudeau says

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.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Air TravelCanadaCoronavirus

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

Just Posted

Four activists face charges linked to 2019 Abbotsford hog-farm protest

Mischief and break-and-enter charges laid for incidents on four separate days prior to the protest

Three men face attempted murder charges after Harrison Hot Springs stabbing

Man, 24, sent to hospital with life-threatening injuries following attack Wednesday

‘Tiny home’ being built for Abbotsford woman with severe allergies

Online campaign raises $59,000 for custom cargo trailer for Katie Hobson

Chilliwack children can get tested locally, Fraser Health confirms

Erroneous information online and via 811 has many families driving to Abbotsford for testing

Face masks will be mandatory for customers at all Walmart locations

Requirement goes into effect on Wednesday, Aug. 12 across Canada

371 British Columbians battling COVID-19, health officials confirm

Thursday (Aug. 6) saw a second straight day of nearly 50 new confirmed cases

Statistics Canada says country gained 419,000 jobs in July

National unemployment rate was 10.9 per cent in July, down from the 12.3 per cent recorded in June

Canada vows retaliatory measures as Trump restores tariff on Canadian aluminum

The new Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement that replaced NAFTA went into force on July 1

Canada ‘profoundly concerned’ over China death sentence for citizen in drug case

Police later confiscated more than 120 kilograms of the drug from Xu Weihong’s home

Answers to 5 common questions facing families for the COVID-19 school year

COVID-19 protocols are likely to vary even more at the school board level, and even and school-to-school.

Visitors and non-residents entering closed remote B.C. First Nation’s territories

With limited resources, they say they don’t have any authority or power to enforce the closures

UBC loses appeal on Fisheries Act convictions

BC Supreme Court upholds order to pay $1.55-million fine

Masks to be mandatory on BC Transit, TransLink starting Aug. 24

Both BC Transit and TransLink made the announcement in separate press releases on Thursday

Most Read