Rob Przybylski and Courtney Ross, shown in a handout photo, were slated to wrap up the month on a Costa Rican beach celebrating their wedding, sipping sugar cane cocktails with friends and family. Instead, the Oshawa duo and their 84 guests are out more than $216,000 after their Sunwing Airlines vacation package was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Rob Przybylski MANDATORY CREDIT

Airlines’ ‘bait-and-switch’ strategy lures customers to flights that never take off

Airlines’ ‘bait-and-switch’ strategy lures customers to flights that never take off

OTTAWA — Rob Przybylski and Courtney Ross were slated to wrap up the month on a Costa Rican beach, sipping sugarcane cocktails with friends and family as they celebrated their wedding.

Instead, the Oshawa, Ont., duo say they and their 84 guests are out more than $216,000 after their Sunwing Airlines vacation package was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They have basically told us that refunds are not an option,” said Przybylski, 35.

Like most Canadian airlines, Sunwing does not reimburse passengers for flights cancelled by the airline, instead offering travel vouchers valid for two years.

The couple’s original booking in April had been called off by the carrier as the virus shut down global air travel. Their destination, a Planet Hollywood resort on the Pacific Ocean, offered a refund, but Sunwing did not, he said. So they rebooked the nuptial getaway for Nov. 27.

Sunwing cancelled the second flight last month, he said.

“We have 80 people that are out money, and a lot of them aren’t working now,” including his fiancée for much of this year, Przybylski said.

“My mom is the perfect example. She hasn’t travelled in 30 years. What is she going to do with a credit?”

Despite minuscule travel demand, Canadian airlines continue to schedule tens of thousands of flights per month, only to cancel the vast majority of them several weeks before takeoff.

The approach can leave passengers with a drastically changed itinerary or no flight at all, giving them little choice but to accept vouchers they may never use.

Air Canada cut more than 27,000 flights, or 70 per cent, from its November schedule between Sept. 25 and Oct. 9, according to figures from aviation data firm Cirium. It cut another 2,000 by the end of October.

WestJet Airlines, which recently began to offer refunds for cancelled flights, in contrast to its competitors, slashed its November schedule by about 12,400 flights, or 68 per cent, in one week last month. Air Transat scrapped 63 per cent of its flights for November in the same week, leaving it with 123 — down to 100 as of last week.

Comparable schedule cuts occurred in October and September.

“It’s called bait and switch,” said John Gradek, a lecturer at McGill University and head of its Global Aviation Leadership program.

The strategy is a response to a shift in customer behaviour, an attempt to woo wary travellers with ample flight options before drastically undersold seats prompt a scheduling cull.

“The industry cross their fingers and hope people buy, that they all of a sudden get this insane urge to fly,” Gradek said, calling the practice “deceptive.”

“’Cynical’ is probably too light of a word,” he said. “It borders on the edge of misleading advertising, that you’re promoting and offering for sale stuff that you know there’s a high probability will not be what you’re actually offering to the customer.”

Carriers deny there is anything untoward about recent schedule gutting.

“Airline schedules have always been subject to change,” Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said in an email, noting the company has had to cut capacity by more than 90 per cent since March.

“In ordinary circumstances we would absorb temporary downturns in demand,” said WestJet spokeswoman Morgan Bell. But plummeting business has compelled “difficult decisions which include adjusting the schedule more frequently than normal.”

Bell said WestJet retains a robust schedule until the last minute to accommodate potential spikes in demand, such as the one after last month’s announcement that international travellers arriving at the Calgary airport can now forgo the mandated 14-day quarantine if they take a COVID-19 test.

Sunwing did not respond to questions Friday.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau called the situation “complicated,” saying he sympathizes with customers.

“I encourage the airlines to repay passengers if they can. At the same time, some of those airlines are in deep difficulty in terms of their own ability to continue to function if they were having to provide refunds to all of the customers.”

Air Canada held on to more than $2.4 billion in advance ticket sales as of July 31, a hefty sum to return after its revenues dropped 95 per cent year over year in its second quarter.

Travellers have a right to reimbursement for a service that was paid for but never rendered, regardless of airlines’ financial woes, say opposition MPs and consumer advocates.

The Conservatives, NDP and Bloc Québécois have demanded refund requirements as a condition of any aid package to the industry.

Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet said Friday the government is “behaving like a branch of Air Canada.”

“The minister of transport for seven months, since the beginning of the crisis, has essentially shrugged his shoulders any time the need for passenger reimbursement has come up,” NDP transport critic Niki Ashton said in an interview.

The Canadian Transportation Agency said in March that airlines can issue travel credit instead of refunds for cancelled trips in the “current context,” though the agency later clarified that the online statement was “not a binding decision” and that reimbursements depend in part on the contract between airline and passenger.

European and U.S. authorities have demanded airlines reimburse travellers, on top of the strings attached to aid that range from limiting dividends and executive bonuses to cutting carbon emissions and carving out ownership stakes for government.

Back in Oshawa, far from the sands of a Costa Rican resort, Rob Przybylski took stock.

“I know I’m not the only one in this situation. The biggest thing for me is to get my money back for my guests.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2020.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

Airlines

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

Just Posted

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Conservatives push for parliamentary committee study into failed vaccine deal

OTTAWA — The federal Conservatives are calling for a parliamentary committee to… Continue reading

(Black Press file photo).
Pregancy Care Centre seeks support through online fundraiser

The annual banquet was cancelled, due to the pandemic

(Red Deer Advocate file photo).
Registrations for Red Deer rec programs delayed

Sign-up for sports and culture programs starts Jan. 12

(Red Deer Advocate file photo).
Red Deer County seeks public feedback on draft budget

Minimal impact on ratepayers was the goal

(Advocate file photo).
RDC’s The Nutcracker is being videotaped for online viewing

COVID-19 presents challenges for live performance

Idyllic winter scenes are part of the atmosphere of the holiday season, and are depicted in many seasonal movies. How much do you know about holiday movies? Put your knowledge to the test. (Pixabay.com)
QUIZ: Test your knowledge of holiday movies and television specials

The festive season is a time for relaxing and enjoying some seasonal favourites

Toronto police respond to an incident at St. Michael’s College School, in Toronto, Nov. 19, 2018. The trial of a teen accused of sexually assaulting two students at a prestigious Toronto high school is set to resume today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin
Trial resumes for teen accused in St. Michael’s College School sex assault case

Defence lawyers for a teen accused of sexually assaulting two students at… Continue reading

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. The Trump administration is keeping silent about Canada blocking its plan to import prescription drugs from north of the border. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trump admin silent after Hajdu pushes back on U.S. plan to raid Canada’s drug cabinet

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Trump administration is keeping silent about Canada blocking… Continue reading

Quebec City mayor Regis Labeaume, right, speaks at the inauguration of a memorial to the 2017 mosque shooting, Tuesday, December 1, 2020 in Quebec City. From the left, Luce Pelletier, artist who designed the memorial, MP Joel Lightbound, Boufeldja Benabdallah, and MNA Joelle Boutin.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
Quebec City’s memorial to 2017 mosque shooting victims symbolizes defeat of hatred

Quebec City has inaugurated a memorial to the victims of the 2017… Continue reading

A scene from last year’s Light the Night fundraiser at the Stettler Town and Country Museum. This year’s rendition is on a drive-through basis only, but it still promises to be a not-to-be-missed seasonal highlight. (Independent file photo)
Stettler Town and Country Museum hosts ‘Light the Night’

This year’s rendition is drive-through only, but will still prove to be a dazzling display

Alberta restaurants face new regulations aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19, Photo from Trolley 5 Brewery and Restaurant Facebook page
Restaurants working under new restrictions Central Alberta

Starting last Friday, any area in the province with more than 50… Continue reading

Opinion piece
Opinion: A down payment on recovery, details to come

Just to be clear: Justin Trudeau’s government has not acquired the ability… Continue reading

(Black Press File Photo)
Rimbey woman gathering Christmas gifts for seniors at Valleyview Manor

Margaret Tanasiuk says she doesn’t want anyone to feel forgotten on Christmas morning

Mike Miltimore, seen in Kamloops, B.C., in an undated handout photo, says the Gretsch electric guitar that a woman brought into his store is from 1955 and similar to one played by country music legend Chet Atkins before he developed his signature series of guitars. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Mike Miltimore
Guitar made in 1950s worth more than B.C. family imagined

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — When Renee Latheur decided to take an old guitar… Continue reading

Most Read