Stranded Canadians struggle to return home—and get refunds for cancelled flights

Canadians abroad are raising concerns about compensation as they try to find a way back home, with some stranded as borders close and airlines cut flights due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Many overseas travellers have seen their routes suspended and booked return trips with a different airline after Global Affairs Canada on Saturday urged Canadians to hurry back to home soil.

Jacqui Birchall, a retired teacher who spends half the year in Mexico, said she is hoping for a full refund from WestJet after it cancelled her flight from Puerto Vallarta to Vancouver as part of its 50 per cent capacity reduction. The airline has not offered to repay the ticket cost, she said.

“WestJet is refusing a refund and they’re giving WestJet dollar credit … so you have to rebook with WestJet,” she said.

Birchall opted to book a flight home with Air Canada next week instead, more than a month earlier than planned.

“It’s spring break down here. But I took a walk along the beach and it was empty. All the stores were empty. The farmer’s market was cancelled,” she said. “Everyone in Mexico hugs and kisses. But now it’s all elbow bumping.”

On Friday, the Canadian Transportation Agency said that flight disruptions to destinations covered by a government advisory against travel due to COVID-19 qualify as “outside of the air carrier’s control,” and thus require no compensation for inconvenience.

The agency did not state whether airlines must offer a basic refund on a cancelled flight.

The European Commission has rejected airlines’ request to offer rebooking or vouchers in place of refunds.

“Carriers have to offer reimbursement (refund of tickets) or re-routing to passengers whose service has been cancelled,” the European Union executive arm said Wednesday.

All Canadian airlines now offer no-fee rebooking as they ground planes amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, but only Sunwing has a refund policy in place for the cancelled routes.

Carriers could lose hundreds of millions of dollars if full refunds were issued across thousands of flights, but Sunwing spokeswoman Rachel Goldrick says it makes sense to pay back customers who are out of pocket.

“We’re suspending the flights, so we think it’s only right that we should be refunding,” she said.

Canadians who need help returning home will be able to apply for an emergency loan of up to $5,000 from the federal government.

That comes as cold comfort for Eve Blake-Davies, 68, who is stranded in Quito, Ecuador, after Air Canada turned her and eight others away at the gate on Monday despite her having boarding pass, she said.

“I cried. Other people cried. Air Canada just said, ‘You can’t get on,’” said Blake-Davies, who lives in Brampton and was volunteering at an Ecuadorian animal shelter. “We were devastated.”

Ecuador has shut down its borders, including to citizens, for the next 21 days as a strict quarantine goes into effect.

“They say people over 50 years old cannot go out of their homes,” Blake-Davies said. “We can’t go out. So we’re just here twiddling our thumbs.”

Canadian airlines have followed global carriers in beginning massive scale-backs to adapt to the nosedive in demand amid border shutdowns, including in Canada where the border will be closed to non-essential traffic in both directions. On Wednesday, Air Canada announced that it will suspend the bulk of its U.S. and overseas flights by the end of the month and operate a “significantly reduced” flight network within Canada.

Capacity reductions and border controls have left Quebecers Guillaume Rioux and Valerie Simard stranded in Cusco, Peru, with their one-year-old son after trying to visit to Machu Picchu. The country declared a state of emergency and travel ban Monday night, and a strict self-isolation policy has prompted the closure of the Canadian embassy.

“We’re allowed to go out and get food, but we see the police in the streets and they’re asking for our passports and they tell us to go back inside,” said Rioux, a landscape contractor.

“Right now it’s the busy season for everybody that wants submissions for their work. It’s the moment that I book my whole season. So when I get back I’ll have to be fast on the response,” he said.

“I’m a bit disappointed about the government not acting fast enough,” he added.

Global Affairs Canada said in a statement Tuesday that “Canada has no current plans to repatriate a significant group of people from other countries.”

About three million Canadians live and work abroad at any given time, Trudeau said Tuesday.

“We are looking at every possible way of bringing Canadians home,” Trudeau said. “It’s realistic to know some of them won’t be coming home in the coming weeks.”

Canadian airlines say they are focusing on repatriation flights in partnership with Ottawa.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2020.

Companies in this story: (TSX:AC)

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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