A British Columbia woman is launching a class-action lawsuit against several major Canadian airlines and travel companies over their decision to issue credits and vouchers instead of refunds for flights and vacations cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The legal action by Janet Donaldson, whose Vancouver-New York round trip on WestJet in April was cancelled, was filed last week in Federal Court against Swoop, WestJet, Air Canada, Air Transat and Sunwing. The suit has not been certified.
Sébastien Paquette, a Montreal lawyer representing passengers in the suit, said Donaldson paid by credit card and was "disappointed" when she could not get a refund, "which she was allowed to receive by law."
"This is a consumer-protection class action seeking to enforce each passenger's rights to a refund for monies paid for their air tickets, when they are not able to travel for reasons outside of the control of the passengers," the statement of claim said.
It said companies should not be permitted to keep passengers' money for an indefinite period of time, whether they want to travel in the future or not. The class action applies to an unknown number of passengers, but it's estimated it could affect hundreds of thousands of people.
It includes anyone "residing anywhere in the world" who has not received a refund and who bought a ticket with one of the companies before March 11 for a trip scheduled between March 13 and whenever the federal government withdraw's COVID-19 travel advisories.
Airlines defend vouchers
Airlines have slashed routes during the pandemic and cancelled many flights as the Canadian government urges people to avoid all non-essential travel outside the country. Many passengers have been frustrated at being offered travel vouchers instead of refunds.
Paquette said part of the claim is asking that the money paid for the cancelled tickets be placed with the court until the case is settled.
"We want to secure the class members their money. At this point it literally is their money, so there's no reason it should be kept in the airlines' accounts," Paquette said.
Air Canada and WestJet did not respond to requests for comment before publication and Swoop had no comment. Sunwing said the decision "to suspend all flights was made as a last resort, in response to the exceptional circumstances faced across the industry and around the world."
In an email, Air Transat's vice-president of human resources and corporate affairs, Christophe Hennebelle, said the situation "has placed an extraordinary burden on the industry, which puts its very existence into question."
He said the company believes "that in such a force majeure situation, way beyond our span of control, we do not have to issue a full refund for travels that have not been completed."
He called the 24-month credit voucher "an acceptable solution," saying Italy, Belgium, France and the U.K. have passed legislation to "secure that solution."
'It's the right thing to be done'
Paquette said the airlines are forcing people to fly at a later date, when they may not wish to travel and could face a "substantially different price." He points out the companies are saving money on fuel and other operating expenses because of the cancelled flights.
The lawsuit is being welcomed by people like Halifax resident Katie Gillis, one of those denied a refund after Sunwing cancelled vacations she, her fiancé and 30 others planned in Mexico for her wedding. Collectively, they spent more than $57,000 on the trip.
"I'm super-pleased to hear that," Gillis said of the lawsuit. "It's the right thing to be done."
Class-action lawsuits can take years to wind their way through the courts unless the defendants agree to a settlement. Paquette said he can't predict how the companies will respond, but lawyers are preparing in the event it goes to a trial.
"We feel that this is wrong and class members should definitely get their money back," he said.
Those who were denied a refund during the specified period are automatically qualified as part of the class action and do not have to do anything at this point.
Paquette is urging people to keep their documentation, including ticket bookings, charges and emails, since it may be required in the future to prove a claim.
None of the allegations in the statement of claim have been proven in court.
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