That’s a departure from Canadian airlines’ practice of offering rescheduled flights or vouchers for future flights, which has angered many passengers, some of whom have found themselves out thousands of dollars during an economic crisis.
“We have now begun processing refunds to original form of payment for guests holding some international itineraries that were cancelled by WestJet due to the COVID-19 crisis,” a WestJet spokesperson said in an email to HuffPost Canada.
Passengers who booked directly with WestJet will have the option of rebooking, taking a voucher or taking cash. Those who booked through an agency will have the option of rebooking or taking a cash refund, WestJet said.
Watch: Airports and flying amid the coronavirus. Story continues below.
The Journal de Montreal reported that only flights that went through the U.S. or U.K. will be eligible for a cash refund.
WestJet didn’t confirm this, but said it is “carefully monitoring the regulatory frameworks in all its operated jurisdictions,” and urged customers “to check our website regularly for up-to-date information pertaining to COVID-19.”
The Journal cited a letter from WestJet to travel agents, which stated that cash refunds will be limited to flights routed through the U.S. or U.K. HuffPost Canada has also seen the document, but cannot independently verify its authenticity.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau said last month that Canada’s airlines could go bankrupt if they had to offer cash refunds for the flights cancelled during the pandemic.
But Gabor Lukacs, a prominent passenger rights’ advocate, notes that regulators in the U.S. and Europe have insisted that airlines provide cash refunds.
And he believes WestJet’s move is due to more stringent enforcement of passenger rights in the U.S. and U.K. than in Canada.
He noted that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has issued multiple letters to “U.S. and foreign” airlines reminding them that passengers are entitled to cash refunds.
“Airlines have long provided such refunds, including during periods when air travel has been disrupted on a large scale, such as the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and presidentially declared natural disasters,” DOT said in an April 3, 2020, statement.
Lukacs has long criticized the federal government for what he argues is a failure to uphold consumers’ rights in the air travel industry.
The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) took heat from Lukacs and others in March over an online statement that airlines have the right to refuse a cash refund for a cancellation related to COVID-19.
The agency amended its statement to note that it is “not legally binding,” and whether an airline owes a passenger a refund may depend on the tariff ― the contract between passenger and airline as spelled out on the flight ticket.
Lukacs, founder of the Air Passenger Rights consumer group, told media he has heard from passengers who were denied refunds by airlines that referred to the CTA statement.
Air Passenger Rights has filed a legal action against CTA in the Federal Court of Appeal, asking the Court to have its statement on refunds removed, and for the people who wrote it to be removed from CTA’s adjudication process for air passenger complaints.
The court rejected the advocacy group’s request to have the statement taken down temporarily, while the case makes its way through the court.
Lukacs has suggested that passengers who are rejected by the airline for a cash refund, or who haven’t gotten an answer after 15 days, can ask their credit card company to reverse the charge, on the grounds that the service paid for was not rendered.
The credit card company may resist the idea so “you need to be really very, very assertive,” he said.
― With files from The Canadian Press