An Air Canada worker clean her ticketing station at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Air Canada has the second-highest number of complaints about refunds to the U.S. Department of Transportation of any airline, including American ones. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Air Canada racks up second-most refund complaints in the U.S. in May

MONTREAL — Air Canada had the second-highest number of complaints about refunds to the U.S. Department of Transportation of any airline in May.

The department says Air Canada was the target of 1,705 refund complaints out of 10,415 filed against non-U.S. airlines in the month, outpacing all 80-plus foreign carriers in the category as well as more than 45 flight agencies.

United Airlines was the only airline — domestic or international — to notch more refund complaints at 3,215.

Air Canada and other Canadian carriers have refused to reimburse most customers whose flights were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, typically offering flight credit instead.

However the U.S., like the European Union, requires airlines to refund passengers. A complaint to the U.S. regulator offers a potential path to reimbursement for some Air Canada customers who have been turned down north of the border.

Air Canada’s tally of complaints came even as four U.S. airlines as well as British Airways and Lufthansa carried more passengers on flights with a U.S. segment than the Canadian airline, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

WestJet Airlines Ltd. ranked right below Air Canada in cross-border passenger numbers, but garnered the sixth-most refund complaints among non-U.S. airlines at 346. WestJet has said customers who booked U.S. or U.K. flights are entitled to refunds.

May marked the second month in a row that Air Canada has finished among the top tier of complaint targets, with the Montreal-based company’s portion on the rise.

Air Canada received 969 refund complaints out of 7,568 in April, or 13 per cent, according to the department. It ranked third for refund complaints of any carrier that month, after United Airlines and American Airlines.

“There’s a lot of pushback from the airline to refund passengers. They’re trying to offer vouchers or get out of their obligation to refund their passengers,” said Taylor Bain, a second-year law student at the University of Ottawa and co-founder of FORMidable Solutions.

Earlier this month the organization released a free online tool to help passengers file formal complaints to the U.S. transportation department. The complaint generator has now been used more than 2,000 times, she said.

Air Canada did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

The U.S. department’s April 3 enforcement notice states that “passengers should be refunded promptly when their scheduled flights are cancelled or significantly delayed,” and is applicable to U.S. and foreign carriers.

“Although the COVID-19 public health emergency has had an unprecedented impact on air travel, the airlines’ obligation to refund passengers for cancelled or significantly delayed flights remains unchanged,” the directive states.

Air Canada has fought formal complaints to the Department of Transportation, arguing that the enforcement notice along with “the Department’s COVID-19 Refund FAQs are guidance documents only…and do not have the effect of law.”

The airline also states in departmental filings that it has fully complied with the terms of its contract of carriage, that its refund policy “is neither unfair nor deceptive” and that many airfares were purchased outside the U.S., making the enforcement notice “an unwarranted extraterritorial application of U.S. law.”

In May, the top complaint-earning foreign carrier after Air Canada was TAP Air Portugal, whose 901 cases amount to just over half the complaint numbers of its Canadian counterpart.

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