FILE – An Air Canada Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft is shown next to a gate at Trudeau Airport in Montreal on March 13, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

FILE – An Air Canada Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft is shown next to a gate at Trudeau Airport in Montreal on March 13, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Airlines face MPs’ frustration over health concerns, lack of refunds

Transport Canada officials also faced questions about refunds and health measures

Airlines faced a tough reception at the House of Commons health committee Monday as MPs grilled them on the lack of refunds for customers whose flights were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parliamentarians from the three main opposition parties demanded to know why Canadians who paid for a service that was never delivered have yet to get their money back.

Conservative health critic Matt Jeneroux said the lack of refunds was “unfathomable,” while Bloc Quebecois member Luc Theriault highlighted the $2.61 billion in advance ticket sales Air Canada reported in its quarterly results last month.

“It’s not your money — there’s been no transaction. Where are the funds being kept? Where are the funds?” Theriault asked a company executive.

Representatives from Air Canada, WestJet Airlines Ltd. and Transat AT defended the dearth of reimbursements by citing store credit valid for at least two years and statements by Canada’s transportation regulator.

The committee session came hours after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said public health trumps airline and tourism sector concerns around ongoing travel restrictions due to the coronavirus crisis.

“I understand how difficult this is and how frustrating this is for some people, but we know that reopening too quickly or carelessly would lead to a resurgence that might well force us to go back into lockdown, to shut down the economy once again, and nobody wants that,” Trudeau told reporters.

Air Canada and WestJet repeatedly cited an April statement by the Canadian Transportation Agency, which has not required airlines to reimburse ticket holders for flights cancelled during the pandemic.

“On April 22, the CTA did clarify its statement on vouchers that airline tariffs do not always provide for cash refunds, especially for (cases) beyond the airline’s control,” WestJet aviation security manager Jared Mikoch-Gerke told the committee.

WestJet’s international tariff — the contract between airline and passenger — states that “the total fare paid for each unused segment (of the trip) will be refunded” following a “failure to operate or refusal to transport” by the carrier.

READ MORE: Travel will have to wait, despite calls from Canada’s business leaders, Trudeau says

Airlines were not the only focus of MPs’ frustration. Transport Canada officials also faced questions about refunds and health measures.

Theriault asked civil servants why Canada has not followed the lead of its counterparts at the U.S. Department of Transportation and the European Union in requiring carriers to provide refunds in order to receive financial support.

“Our understanding is that to date that has not been fully enforced,” with “a number of key European Union members” looking the other way on EU refund rules, said Lawrence Hanson, assistant deputy minister of policy at Transport Canada.

“The existing tariff never contemplated an event of this kind,” he added. “Obviously the immediate forward picture does not look particularly great…so to suddenly require paying the refunds all at once, which would be in the billions of dollars, could obviously have significant economic consequences for airlines.”

Airline revenue streams have shrunk to five per cent of pre-pandemic levels, with fleets parked and border shutdowns ongoing even as domestic travel demand gradually starts to pick up.

Last week, chief executives from 27 Canadian companies in sectors ranging from aviation to banking and telecommunications called for a “measured” reopening of the skies that would see travel resume across all provinces and between select countries.

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam has called the 14-day quarantine for arrivals from abroad a “cornerstone” of pandemic policy, New Democrat health critic Don Davies noted.

“When we start to relax our standards, we may be actually just be walking into a second phase,” he said, citing flare-ups in Australia, New Zealand and multiple U.S. states following looser restrictions.

“I’m not here to disagree with Dr. Tam. I’m not a doctor. But there are several doctors and health (authorities) around the world that are making contrary decisions,” said Ferio Pugliese, Air Canada’s vice-president of government relations.

A “calculated strategy” with “safe-to-safe air corridors” between countries with diminishing infection rates, said Howard Liebman of Transat.

Many European Union countries have begun to reopen their borders to EU and some non-EU members.

Manitoba and the Maritime provinces continue to restrict interprovincial travel, while travellers arriving in Canada from abroad must self-isolate for two weeks.

Last week, Trudeau extended a ban on non-essential travel between Canada and the U.S. until at least July 21.

“We need to make sure we are keeping Canadians safe first and foremost,” the prime minister said Monday.

Trudeau also cited financial support available across industries, including the federal wage subsidy as well as loans starting at $60 million for large companies.

Kevin Brosseau, assistant deputy minister for safety and security, pointed to mandatory measures that include face masks on board aircraft and, starting next month, temperature checks at the point of departure.

Transport Canada encourages airlines to maintain empty middle seats, but does not require the precaution. However, Brosseau said it hasn’t been ruled out. ”I can’t foreclose that as volumes go up, as people start flying again, that that may not be a measure that we take,” Brosseau added.

For now, Air Canada and WestJet block the sale of middle or adjacent seats in economy class and throughout the entire plane, respectively. Ultra-low-cost carrier Flair Airlines charges $49 to guarantee an empty adjacent seat.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Air TravelCanadaCoronavirus

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

Just Posted

A woman wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 uses walking sticks while walking up a hill, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Interior Health reports 83 more COVID-19 infections overnight

46 cases are now associated with a COVID-19 community cluster in Revelstoke

Mayor Colin Basran at the announcement of the 2021 Tim Horton’s Brier to be hosted in Kelowna on Nov. 21. (Contributed)
Tim Hortons Brier not coming to Kelowna

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted Curling Canada to move to hub model, similar to the NHL playoffs

Charitables is partnering with Mamas for Mamas and the Central Okanagan Food Drive for a holiday gift drive. (Charitables)
Shop local, support the vulnerable: Kelowna marketplace partners with charities for holiday gift drive

Charitables is partnering with Mamas for Mamas and the Central Okanagan Food Bank

Renee Merrifield speaking to media on her front doorstep after being declared the winner of the Kelowna-Mission riding for the BC Liberal Party on Oct. 24, 2020. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)
Central Okanagan MLA’s take on new roles

Renee Merrifield will be taking over for Norm Letnick as the BC Liberal Caucus’ health critic

Photo submitted.
Kelowna orders sushi more than any other food, according to Skip the Dishes report

Momo Sushi on Bernard Avenue is Kelowna’s favourite independent restaurant for take-out

A tongue-in-cheek message about wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 on a sign outside a church near Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection count climbs back up to 656

20 more people in hospital, active cases still rising

Brent Ross poses with his dog Jack who died over the weekend after asphyxiating on a ball. Ross hopes his experience serves as a cautionary tale to other dog owners. (Contributed)
Salmon Arm man warns others after dog dies from choking on a ball

Brent Ross grieving the sudden loss of Jack, a healthy, seven-year-old chocolate lab

This year’s Candlelight Vigil, United Against Violence Against Women, on Dec. 6, 2020 will not be in person at the campuses of Okanagan College due to COVID-19, but people will be able to gather online to watch a video presentation and light a candle in remembrance. (Image contributed)
Violence against women in North Okanagan-Shuswap to be remembered online

Participants in virtual vigil Dec. 6 asked to light a candle and post photo on social media

An Enderby restaurant and pub has been shut down since Sunday afternoon, Nov. 29, 2020 as a precaution after a guest reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. (Howard Johnson photo)
Enderby pub shuts down after guest reportedly tests positive for COVID-19

The Howard Johnson hotel, restaurant and pub has been closed since Sunday afternoon, Nov. 29

Robert Gibson, born November 24, 2020 is in BC Children’s Hospital. Photo contributed
Princeton baby fights for his life, with parents at his side

A Go Fund Me campaign has been started to help family with expenses

Grapevine Optical was the victim of an early morning break and enter Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2020. (Crime Stoppers Okanagan / Facebook)
Collection of designer sunglasses stolen from South Okanagan eye-wear shop

Crime Stoppers is seeking the identity of two male suspects

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Most Read