03/14/2020 18:32 EDT | Updated 09/11/2020 16:19 EDT

Canadians Frustrated After Airlines Update Cancellation Policy Amid Coronavirus

Customer service lines for Air Canada, WestJet and Air Transat are jammed.

Roberto Machado Noa via Getty Images
Passengers prepare to board an Air Transat airplane in Cuba on Feb. 19, 2016.

MONTREAL — The Canadian government’s new directive to avoid all non-essential international travel has customers who had booked a trip prior to the COVID-19 pandemic scrambling to cancel or reschedule flights — and running into plenty of wait times.

Many airlines, including Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat and Sunwing, have announced “flexibility policies” to allow some travellers to rebook their flights for free or cancel them in exchange for a credit, depending on their original departure date.

But over Friday night and Saturday, many customers complained about being unable to modify their bookings within the time period set  by the companies, because they weren’t able to reach customer service.

On Saturday afternoon, for example, the estimated wait time to reach WestJet’s customer service was over 18 hours, as per the company’s website.

A screenshot of estimated wait times listed on WestJet's website on Saturday.

The process has been confusing for customers like Tom Holland. He has so far been unable to get reimbursed from Air Canada for cancelling his April 1 flight from Vancouver to Hawaii. It was booked through online travel agency FlightNetwork, and Air Canada said its flexibility policy covers tickets purchased through the airline or an agency.

“I contacted Flight Network [Friday] morning, only a 10 minute wait with really bad music. They told me that Air Canada had not changed their policy of no refunds or credits and would not allow them to process one,” Holland told HuffPost Quebec in an email.

“The wait to speak with Air Canada is 2+ hours on hold and if you email them, they respond by saying it will take up to 10 days for a response. The online options on this ticket has the cancellation button deactivated. You simply can’t process a cancellation online.”

Holland also tried to get a refund through his credit card company, which offers a trip cancellation provision. But he was told that was not viable since the policy applies only if the federal government issued a level 3 or 4 alert. So far, the B.C. and federal governments have only issued travel advisories.

How to contact major Canadian airlines

Air Canada - 1 (888) 247-2262. It has listed cancellation, rescheduling and refund policies on this page

WestJet - 1 (888) 937-8538. Here is their webpage for flight changes or cancellations related to COVID-19.

Air Transat - 1 (877) 872-6728. Click here for Air Transat’s coronavirus-related customer service page.

Sunwing - 1 (877) 877-1755. The airline’s change policy is listed on this page. 

Air Transat policy changes leave some in the lurch

Air Transat’s website went down for over two hours on Friday night, and numerous people complained on Twitter about being unable to get through to customer service on the phone. Transat spokesperson Debbie Cabana told HuffPost Canada in an email Saturday that “due to an exceptionally high call volume, our phone lines are saturated.” 

The company is asking customers who have flights scheduled to depart before April 30 to fill an online form to request a change. Processing those requests could take “up to a few days,” it said, but “all requests received within the prescribed time-window will be treated, even if the departure date has passed.”

Late Friday night, Air Transat amended its original flexibility policy of three days to allow changes up to 24 hours before departure. However, the new policy was useless for customers who had flights scheduled to leave on Saturday.

NurPhoto via Getty Images
A crowd of passengers are shown at Pearson International Airport in Toronto in an undated photo.

François Durocher was scheduled to fly from Montreal to Cayo Coco on AIr Transat on Saturday evening. When the airline announced its original flexibility policy on Thursday, he was denied recourse because his flight was less than 72 hours later. Then,when the airline relaxed its policy on Friday night, it was too late for him, because his flight was leaving within 24 hours. 

“We’re trying again today [Saturday], but we’re expecting another no because the new delay is 24 hours,” he said.

Meanwhile, Holland said he’s still hopeful he will receive a credit for his cancelled trip. 

“Once this craziness is over, I would like to see Hawaii.”

UPDATE: Air Transat confirmed in an email to HuffPost Saturday that Durocher would be credited for his flight.

Also on HuffPost:

HuffPost Canada