Canadians caught up in widespread holiday travel disruptions are seeking refunds and compensation from airlines and rail service after a severe winter storm over Christmas impacted operations — but how long should it take to get the money owed?
Thousands of travellers faced cancellations or delays due to poor weather in recent weeks, leaving many stranded in sunny destinations, sleeping on airport floors and shuffled between hotels.
There have also been complaints about lost or misplaced luggage amid the transportation chaos, and Via Rail on Tuesday announced it is launching an external review into its performance during the storm.
Gabor Lukacs, president of Air Passenger Rights, says there is a time period that’s reasonable for customers to give the airlines to respond — but if they don’t respond, it’s time to escalate.
“Give them first a chance to do the right thing, send a letter of demand, give the airline 30 days to pay up, and if they don’t, serve them the small claims court papers,” he said in an interview with AM640 Toronto on Tuesday. The radio station is owned by Corus Entertainment, the parent company of Global News.
“I know it may be very onerous or feel that way to the passengers, but nothing is going to change unless passengers are willing to go through that effort.”
So far, the Canadian Transportation Agency says it is facing a backlog of more than 30,000 complaints. And while Canada’s major airlines and passenger rail company, Via Rail, have promised reimbursements and refunds to impacted customers, processing those claims is taking time.
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Via Rail said it has received a “high volume” of refund requests after the company cancelled all services on the Toronto-Montreal and Toronto-Ottawa routes between Dec. 24 and 26, 2022.
“Our teams are currently working on processing all the refunds as quickly as possible, but this operation will likely take several more days to be completed considering the high volume,” Philippe Cannon, a Via Rail spokesperson, told Global News Monday.
All Via Rail passengers who were on or were supposed to travel on cancelled trains between Dec. 24 and 26 are eligible for an automatic full refund, he said.
Additionally, passengers who were on board the trains in the Québec City-Windsor, Ont., corridor that were immobilized during the night of Dec. 23 and 24 will receive a full refund as well as a travel credit, Cannon added.
On Tuesday, the rail service said it will be reviewing its performance over the four-day period in December with the help of outside experts.
“We will be looking at a wide range of issues including our planning for the storm, our operational response, protocol around customer care and our overall communications as well as how we can better accommodate our passengers in order to get them to their destination,” Via Rail president and CEO Martin R Landry said in a statement.
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WestJet, which cancelled hundreds of flights due to extreme weather conditions in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, also says it is “working around the clock to provide refunds to all impacted guests as soon as possible.”
The deadline for submitting a refund request was Dec. 28, 2022, according to the Calgary-based airline.
“If you had travel booked or changed by December 28th, 2022 11:59 MT for travel between December 18th, 2022 to January 8, 2023 and chose to cancel your flight(s) or your WestJet Vacations package, you may have been eligible for a refund,” the airline says on its website.
“Any guest who proactively cancelled their flight by 11:59PM MT on December 28th, 2022, will receive a full refund to original form of payment.”
Travellers whose luggage was delayed, lost or damaged can submit a complaint online. Customers can also request reimbursement for any out-of-pocket expenses incurred due to delayed or damaged baggage.
“The recommended amount is up to $100 for the first 48 hours while your bags are delayed. After 48 hours, we recommend a further $150 to a total of $250,” WestJet says.
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Air Canada said any customers who chose not to or could not travel over the winter holiday period are being responded to in accordance with its policies and the Air Passenger Protection Regulations requirements.
The Air Passenger Protections Regulations lay out the minimum airline requirements for travel – including “standards of treatment” and, in some situations, “compensation” for passengers, according to the federal government’s website.
Air Canada implemented a “goodwill refund policy” ahead of the winter storm on Dec. 22 that allowed customers to request a refund or travel voucher if they had purchased a ticket no later than Dec. 21 for travel between Dec. 22 and Dec. 26.
The deadline to submit a request for a refund was two hours before departure.
The company did not directly answer what it will provide to any passengers who did not cancel or rebook but rather were grounded at the airport due to flights cancelled by the airline.
But under Canada’s air passenger protection laws, large airlines owe compensation for delays over three hours and ranging up to $1,000.
Passengers who believe they may be eligible for such compensation have one year from the time of the incident to file a complaint, according to the laws. The airline has 30 days to respond, the regulations state.
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Sunwing did not respond to a request from Global News by the time of publication.
But according to a joint statement by Sunwing Travel Group CEO Stephen Hunter and Sunwing Airlines president Len Corrado on Thursday, the company is “actively accepting eligible claims for compensation.”
Customers can submit their claims on the Sunwing website if their flight was cancelled or delayed by more than three hours.
Many Sunwing travellers who took southbound flights between Dec. 24 and 27 from Toronto Pearson airport experienced luggage problems due to a mechanical issue that impacted the operation of baggage belts.
Sunwing told customers who had to purchase items due to delayed baggage during their vacation in sunny destinations that they would be reimbursed up to US$450 per person. The airline later clarified and said the compensation would be for “reasonable expenses.”
Sunwing is asking passengers to submit online their receipts for the necessities purchased on their trip.
The travel chaos is set to face a probe at the House of Commons transport committee in the coming weeks. Members of the committee voted to call officials from the airlines and rail agencies, along with those from airports that saw some of the most significant impact in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.