Canadian airlines Air Canada, WestJet, Swoop, Air Transat and Sunwing have been accused of breach of contract in a class-action lawsuit filed in British Columbia for refusing to refund tickets purchased after the coronavirus severely impacted air travel.
Instead, the five airlines relaxed usually rigid change rules by granting passengers non-transferrable credits towards future travel, the plaintiffs claim in a filing on 27 March.
After the Canadian government advised against non-essential travel in mid-March, the five carriers radically curtailed their schedules and began laying off staff. They have allowed passengers to rebook without charge on dates later in the year when, it is expected, airlines will resume normal schedules.
Some travellers, however, are demanding their money back, saying they may not wish to travel even after travel restrictions are lifted. For others, it is a financial burden to have money sitting with airlines rather than available to cover daily living expenses, says the suit, filed by British Columbia resident Janet Donaldson.
“Each of the defendants are forcing the class members to forego their fundamental right to a refund and to spend their monies with the same defendant in the future to purchase travel that the class members may not wish to undertake any longer, and likely at a substantially different price,” the lawsuit reads.
The suit says airlines are keeping passengers’ money while also not incurring costs of operating cancelled flights.
Further, the lawsuit says the spread of the coronavirus into a global pandemic, and the ensuing travel restrictions were “outside the passengers control”, thus mandating refunds.
The lawsuit could encompass thousands of passengers who hold tickets for travel on the named airlines in the coming months.
Calgary-based WestJet, which announced last week it was cutting almost half of its staff, declined to comment on the legal proceedings. The airline is currently operating at about the same size it was in 2003, having cancelled all international operations and reduced its domestic service to just a few routes. It has grounded 120 aircraft, which is about two thirds its fleet.
Vacation specialist Air Transat did not wish to comment on the specific lawsuit, but says it believes it is correct in refusing refunds for missed flights due to global events such as the coronavirus crisis.
“[These] are extraordinary circumstances, when all airlines and travel companies have been forced to temporarily halt or reduce drastically their operations when government have decided to close their borders. We do support these decisions in the name of public health and the protection of populations, but these, and the situation itself, has placed an extraordinary burden on the industry, which puts its very existence into question,” the airline says on 30 March.
“In such a force majeure situation, way beyond our span of control, we do not have to issue a full refund for travels that have not been completed,” the airline adds. ”By issuing a 24-month credit voucher, we believe that we are offering an acceptable solution. We are confident that our clients will be able to travel again in a not-too-remote future, once the crisis is over.”
Other airlines named in the suit could not immediately be reached for comment.
Sunwing and Air Transat have said they will wind down operations completely and lay off large percentages of their employees as the crisis plays out, while Air Canada is currently also running a skeleton domestic schedule and helping repatriate Canadians overseas who have been stuck in the past weeks. It too has laid off staff to preserve cash.
Two weeks ago, Canadian airlines asked their government for assistance in managing through the crisis which has decimated the travel industry and left thousands of aircraft across North America idle.
Updates on 30 March to include Air Transat statement.