Were Canadians gouged by the airlines on their emergency flights home? Some say they were

It was meant to be another regular trip to Mexico for Donna and Marcello Prete, until COVID-19 swept across the globe and put international flights at a standstill by the end of March.

Prompted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s call for travellers to return and on the advice of their doctor in Mexico, all they wanted was to come back to Canada. However, the costs for them to do so — and many Canadians — were soaring.

Donna, who is immunosuppressed and had undergone a lung transplant, frantically searched for earlier return flights with Air Canada. Donna was unable to get a representative on the phone, and navigating the company’s website only gave her the option to cancel her original flight, scheduled to return to Canada on April 27 — not to change it to an earlier date. She explained that cancelling outright would leave her only an $ 85 refund and no means to get home.

“I was desperate at that point and I didn’t know what to do,” she told the Star in a phone interview. Unable to reach a representative, her desperation grew. The couple had flights booked with both Air Canada and discount airline, Swoop, at one point — at that time, Swoop was charging $ 589 for two passengers on a one-way flight back to Toronto. However, in just one day, both airlines promptly cancelled the flights.

“Now I have no flights home. So again, I start panicking … I look continuously for flights.” After an exhaustive search at 1 a.m., Donna finally settled on a one-way flight for two on Sunday, March 22, with Swoop. The final cost? Just under $ 1,500.

“We just felt like we were being taken by the airlines in the moment when we needed their help,” Donna said.

The Pretes aren’t the only returning Canadians feeling that airlines left them high and dry: Daniel Capobianco, a Toronto market research consultant, had been in Milan for work since the beginning of February — before the pandemic struck. His $ 1,200 round-trip flight was originally scheduled for the end of March. Seeing a worsening situation, he pushed for an earlier date: “I was in a situation of crisis, it wasn’t going to get better in Milan,” Capobianco explained, “I was in the epicentre of the virus!”

Capobianco aimed for a March 12 flight at the one-way cost of $ 2,280 from Rome to Toronto. This was booked before Air Canada tweeted that the last flight out of Italy would be a March 11 flight from Rome to Montreal. Desperate to come home, Capobianco took that last flight from Rome a day before his flight. The cost of that change was $ 3,846 for a one-way economy flight. On top of that, the flight from Montreal to Toronto ran him an extra $ 487.64.

“(Air Canada) said it was supply and demand. I have a master’s in economics — I know supply and demand very well. They were just taking advantage of the situation.”

There is a wave of similar stories of returning Canadians scrambling through a frenzy of cancellations, rebookings, and plans to get back home. Many flyers aired out their bad experiences on the Air Passenger Rights (Canada) Facebook group, formed by air-rights advocate Gabor Lukacs.

The group offers resources and guidelines on how to receive a refund from an airline that has cancelled the flight, provided the passenger holds proof that the flight was cancelled by the airline (such as an email notification or even a screenshot of the cancelled flight reservation on the website), hasn’t already accepted a future credit, and has tried to contact the travel agent by all means to request a refund (making it important to keep a record of all contact attempts to help your case). Lukacs explained that these cases may have to be processed through small-claims court.

Lukacs explains on his website, AirPassengerRights.ca, that consumers are entitled to a full refund — not just a company credit to be used at a later date — if airlines cancel any segment of the booked flight or if passengers are forced to give up their original travel plans in response to a government or health advisory. Also, airline staff must be reachable, or else the airline may be in breach of contract and the traveller could be entitled to a full refund on that basis.

With mounting complaints against the travel industry, there is now an online petition on Change.org from Lukacs’ group to push the government to intervene. The petition calls for the Minister of Transportation to enact measures protecting travellers returning home and prompt airlines to provide these coronavirus-related travel refunds.

Airline passengers can also request assistance or file a complaint provincially through the Travel Industry Council of Ontario website or federally through the Canadian Transportation Agency website (note, however, that air-travel disputes have been suspended on their website until June 30, 2020).

Air Canada responded to the Star’s request for comment by noting that flights almost always rise in price when booked last-minute. “Normally, airline prices change all the time and we have complex systems that manage our fares,” explained a representative. “Typically, as you get closer to a flight, the fare will go up as the plane fills. This is called yield management, and most airlines do this.”

The response added that special one-way fares were put into effect near the beginning of March that passengers may have missed, leaving them with higher fares. Air Canada, like many other airlines at this time, waived cancellation fees for travellers looking to come home because of COVID-19.

A response from WestJet explained that remaining seats on recent returning flights were capped at the lowest economy fare for Canadians looking to come home. The company said that prior to these rescue flights there was no intentional price gouging or change to flight systems — fares were all adjusted based on demand.

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At press time, Air Transat and Swoop had not responded to requests for comment.

These “supply and demand” explanations do little to satisfy air travellers who have had their originally booked, more affordable flights cancelled and forced to take a flight for almost twice the cost.

Advocates like Lukacs advise travellers to know their rights, keep all documentation of contact with the airline, and to file complaints accordingly. As for extra costs and a refusal to issue refunds, Lukacs’ guide is clear for travellers: “Stand your ground. Do not take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Stephanie Hughes is a business writer and financial journalist in the Canadian markets.

TORONTO STAR