Ahead of possible strike, WestJet pre-emptively offering free flight changes, cancellations — but should you take it?
With a possible WestJet pilots’ strike on the horizon, the airline is pre-emptively offering to rebook passengers for free.
WestJet says it’s offering passengers a $0 one-time fee waiver for flight changes or cancellations, applicable to all flights booked for May 15 to 21. The airline says changes or cancellations must be made more than two hours before departure.
Similarly, discount carrier and WestJet subsidiary Swoop is also offering free flight changes and cancellations for flights from May 19 to 21.
But one consumer advocate is recommending travellers stick with their itinerary and instead claim any compensation required under federal and international regulations from the airlines in the event of a strike.
“I would not recommend (taking WestJet’s pre-emptive offer) for most passengers because you don’t really know what’s going to happen. Even if they even if they offer you a flight two or three days later … there’s no way to know how long (a strike) is going to last,” Gabor Lukacs, president of the Air Passenger Rights group, told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Wednesday.
In the event of a strike, the airline is legally required to rebook passengers on the next available flight operated by any carrier, even if it’s with a competing airline. The flight could be rebooked to or from another airport that’s within a reasonable distance, but in this case, the airline must pay for transportation to or from that airport.
Passengers can also choose to receive a full refund, which the airline must provide within 30 days.
But travellers who have an international itinerary are entitled to even more rights. Lukacs says the airline is required to compensate travellers for meals, ground transportation and even lost wages. And for flights departing from the European Union or the U.K., the airline must also pay up to €600 in monetary compensation, equivalent to about C$875.
Lukas says passengers who choose to take WestJet’s pre-emptive offer could miss out on this compensation, unless their rebooked flight also gets disrupted.
“You’re essentially giving away some rights to the airline that way. It’s rather sneaky, I would say, what WestJet is trying to do,” he said.
TRAVELLERS SHOULD ‘FASTEN THEIR SEAT BELTS’
With WestJet being the country’s second-largest airline, passengers may have a tough time getting flights with a different airline if a strike does happen, especially over the long weekend.
Flair Airlines on Tuesday announced that it would be adding extra flights between Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton starting this Victoria Day long weekend in anticipation of the heightened demand.
“Flair Airlines stands ready, willing, and able to add additional flights. We hope this measure will help WestJet passengers who otherwise could not travel due to the pilots’ strike,” Stephen Jones, CEO of Flair Airlines said in a news release.
WestJet also has a reprotection agreement with Air Canada, where Air Canada would take on some of the WestJet customers affected in the event of a disruption. However, Duncan Dee, former chief operating officer at Air Canada, says Canada’s largest airline may not have enough spare capacity to deal with the influx of WestJet passengers.
“Air Canada is already operating pretty full. And so, you know, the ability of Air Canada to carry any? disrupted WestJet travellers may be quite limited,” Dee told CTV National News on Tuesday.
“Travelers are going to have to fasten their seat belts because this is going to be pretty bumpy over the next few days.”
CAN PASSENGERS CLAIM COMPENSATION FOR AIRLINE STRIKES?
Under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations, airlines are also required to offer up to $1,000 in monetary compensation for passengers in the event of a flight disruption, depending on how long the delay was and how big the airline is.
However, these compensation rules only apply for delays or cancellations are “within the airline’s control and not related to safety.” Unlike European compensation rules, the current Canadian regulations say labour disruptions are not within the airline’s control, letting the airlines avoid making these pay-outs to passengers.
“It’s absolutely appalling and it really shows how airline-friendly the government’s rules have been,” Lukacs said.
The federal government has been in the process of drafting an overhaul to the Air Passenger Protection Regulations, where the onus would be on the airlines to prove that a flight disruption was due to safety reasons or reasons outside of the airline’s control. Additionally, the Canadian Transportation Agency has also been asked to draw up a list of specific exceptions around compensation.
In Ottawa on Wednesday, prior to a Liberal caucus meeting, Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra confirmed the overhauled Air Passenger Protection Regulations would mandate compensation for passengers affected by labour disruptions.
“So let me just say this. The bill of rights covers responsibility at the airlines that are within their control… That includes a strike,” Alghabra told reporters.
With files from The Canadian Press and CTV National News Correspondent Heather Wright
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