Flight cancellations scramble travellers' plans as hopes for a spike in demand fade

MONTREAL — Rachel Farrell can now claim the unfortunate distinction of having two destination weddings called off in one year.

The 26-year-old event co-ordinator had booked a Transat flight out of Halifax for Feb. 15, 2021, as part of her planned nuptials in the Dominican Republic, but was told this week the airline had cancelled the trip and would not make the journey until six days later.

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She and her fiancee had first booked their trip package for last April, which Transat nixed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I was upset but understood that it wasn’t Air Transat's fault, so we would wait until air travel resumed and rebook as soon as we could since refunds weren’t an option," Farrell said.

She did that in July, rebooking the flight for next February using travel credit based on the $37,000 she and nearly two dozen guests had paid for the package.

"Even though they knowingly chose to cancel my rebooked wedding group, they still won’t give us a refund," Farrell said, noting Transat is again offering credit.

"My travel agent has told me that even if I rebook next week, they might still push the dates further... I don’t know what to do now and all I really want is to get married."

Transat says it typically offers an "alternative option" after a flight is cancelled.

"If the customer refuses that option, they would receive a reimbursement in the same form as the payment. In this case, the payment having been made with a travel voucher, the customer receives a travel voucher of the same amount," said spokesman Christophe Hennebelle.

Farrell's predicament is increasingly common, with Canadian airlines cancelling hundreds of flights as hopes for a spike in demand fall flat, snarling plans for the few passengers who remain.

Air Canada and WestJet have cancelled at least 439 flights so far this month, according to figures from flight data firm Cirium.

The schedule scale-downs come after airlines banked on a return of business travel and a continued uptick in leisure trips in the fall, says John Gradek, who heads McGill University’s Global Aviation Leadership program.

"They’ve decided since about the end of July to let loose on scheduled services and increasing the number of routes, at the same time hoping that the government will loosen up some of its restrictions. And that’s not been the case," he said.

Now, airlines are cancelling the half-booked flights and consolidating passengers on remaining ones to cut costs — "and it’s being done piecemeal rather than being done wholesale," Gradek said.

The letdown builds on an already devastating year.

Transat revenues fell by 99 per cent year over year last quarter, when the tour operator ran flights for just one week.

Air Canada saw passenger revenues drop 95 per cent, prompting 20,000 layoffs as the airline burned through $19 million per day. WestJet has laid off about 4,000 employees since March.

Flight consolidation does not always result in upended plans or wedding dilemmas. An itinerary change often means a departure delay of an hour rather than a week.

"Sometimes airline schedules require minor surgery and sometimes major surgery," said Mike Malik, head of marketing at Cirium.

"We know that most travellers right now are not business travellers. These are VFR travellers — visiting friends and relatives. So if you’re visiting friends and relatives, you probably don’t need a 7 a.m. flight for a 9 a.m. meeting in Toronto."

The reassurance comes as cold comfort for Darlene Hatter, who was twice slated to attend her son's destination wedding in Costa Rica. Both Sunwing Airlines Inc. flights from Toronto have now been now cancelled.

Her son Robert Przybylski, 35, is now out $15,000, as well as the $2,800 each of his 85 guests have spent, she said.

"It's very frustrating," Hatter said.

"The airlines in my opinion are taking advantage big-time of this and stomping on the little people just because they can. The government needs to step up and tell these airlines to give people their refunds."

Canadian airlines have largely sought to avoid refunds, though WestJet and Transat now say they will reimburse customers for European and U.S. flights cancelled by the carriers.

Air Canada has taken a more resistant approach, racking up the second-highest number of complaints about refunds to the U.S. Department of Transportation — which has directed companies to offer reimbursement in the event of flight cancellation — of any airline in May and June (the latest month for which figures are available).

Consumer advocates argue passengers have a right to be reimbursed for a service that was paid for but never rendered.

The Canadian Transportation Agency said in March that airlines can issue travel credit instead of refunds for cancelled trips in the "current context," though the agency later clarified that the online statement was "not a binding decision" and that reimbursements depend in part on the contract between airline and passenger.

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

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