My wife is Canadian so I have an affinity for Canadians and have visited our northern neighbors dozens of times. In pre-COVID-19 times, I would go to Toronto at least five times a year and in fact, we were supposed to be there right now! Then, on May 20 we were scheduled to fly to New York City/Connecticut to visit my family before going on an epic road trip to Boston and flying back to Los Angeles.
Even though I have elite status on American Airlines (my family and I would have gotten free checked bags and premium seat assignments) I booked the hour-long flight on Air Canada for a few reasons: The fare was much cheaper than American’s, the timing was better, the Airbus A320 plane is much larger and is a nicer plane than American’s regional jets, and Air Canada has way more flights a day—so if ours got canceled at the last minute, we wouldn’t be hanging out in the airport with two little kids all day long.
Obviously, due to the current global pandemic, we aren’t traveling, so when I called Air Canada’s 800-number to get a refund on April 3, the nice agent in an overseas call center said, “Air Canada’s policy is not to give a refund even if the flight cancels.” I told him about the U.S. Department of Transportation rule (which I state a few paragraphs down) but he didn’t care. Since our flight hadn’t been canceled and was only delayed, I decided not to press him.
A few days later, I received an email from Air Canada stating: “We regret to inform you that AC8292 from Toronto, Lester B. Pearson Intl (YYZ) to New York, Laguardia (LGA) on May 20, 2020 has been cancelled due to the impacts of COVID-19, government travel advisories and/or health and safety concerns.” The email also stated: “If you do not need to rebook immediately, you can keep the remaining value of your ticket for future travel. This is valid for travel to be completed within 24 months of your flight cancellation date. If you purchased a non-refundable fare, please note that you are not eligible for a refund.”
This time, I decided to take to Twitter so I sent Air Canada a direct message and they replied right away. “Hello Johnny, Thank you for reaching out to us. We regret to inform you that effective March 19, 2020, for all schedule changes occurring on/after March 19, 2020, refunds are no longer permitted. Since your flight has been cancelled, you will receive full credit, which you can use towards future travel. This credit is valid for travel within 24 months of your flight cancellation date. Upon re-booking, there will be no change fee, however, the difference in fare will be applicable per passenger. Regards, Air Canada Social Media /Charlie”
I responded with, “Thanks for the prompt reply! Just to be clear so Air Canada isn’t going to abide by the DOT’s rules?” I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t respond.
The U.S. Department of Transportation rules
Speaking of the Department of Transportation rules, on April 3 the DOT had to create an enforcement notice to clarify the long-standing law because a couple of U.S. airlines (ahem, United and JetBlue) and international airlines were not complying. Here’s what they wrote:
“The U.S. Department of Transportation today issued an Enforcement Notice clarifying, in the context of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) public health emergency, that U.S. and foreign airlines remain obligated to provide a prompt refund to passengers for flights to, within, or from the United States when the carrier cancels the passenger’s scheduled flight or makes a significant schedule change and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered by the carrier. The obligation of airlines to provide refunds, including the ticket price and any optional fee charged for services a passenger is unable to use, does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control (e.g., a result of government restrictions).”
Notice I highlighted that it includes foreign airlines? Air Canada is well aware of the rule but is flat-out ignoring it. And I’m not alone in writing about it. The L.A. Times last week wrote a piece trying to help a reader who had the exact same problem, though their reader made an even bigger mistake of booking Air Canada through Expedia because they both blame each other. The L.A. Times‘s advice is to file a complaint with the DOT by clicking this link or going to bit.ly/DOTcomplaint. As the astute travel editor Catharine Hamm wrote, “That may not lead to a resolution, but it will at least record a submission of the dissatisfaction.”
If enough people complain to the DOT, Air Canada will be fined, which will end up costing them way more than what it would have if they had just done the right thing in the first place.
What will lead to short-term results is calling your credit card company and asking for a chargeback. I just did it this weekend (May 9, 2020) even though I booked the tickets on January 29. I used the Chase Sapphire Reserve and was only on hold for a couple of minutes. The agent was based in India (BTW: I asked how she was doing with the lockdown and she said good and that they’re on day 45 and everyone is working from home). It took her just a few minutes to file a claim and issued a temporary credit for the $418 I paid, which she said should show up in 48 hours. I’ll know for sure if it’s granted in a couple of weeks.
I obviously made a big mistake by booking Air Canada. I’m kicking myself because something that would have taken me literally a few minutes to fix with American Airlines has taken a ridiculous amount of time and frustration dealing with Air Canada. Who would have thought that Air Canada would flat-out deny giving refunds while American Airlines would be stellar on that front? Not me!
P.S. I understand the U.S. airlines were counting on the billion-dollar bailout, which they received, and Air Canada has yet to receive one.
UPDATE: A couple readers (below) have asked good questions: If you travel so much to Canada why can’t you just use the flight voucher another time. Here’s my answer “I don’t normally fly Air Canada because I don’t have elite status so I can’t get free upgrades to first class or even economy with extra legroom. When I’m with my family and they check bags it costs much more since I get free checked bags with American. But the biggest reasons are we don’t know if this virus will be over by then and sadly I need the money. Revenue to the site has dropped off a cliff.”
Have you had problems getting a refund with Air Canada?
Please leave a comment below sharing what your experience was like dealing with them.
UPDATE (May 19, 2020): I still haven’t heard back from Chase so I reached out to Air Canada (via Twitter to avoid their long hold times) to see if they changed their policy after the DOT issued another order. They responded within an hour that they did not. When I told them we wouldn’t be on the flight tomorrow they asked if I wanted to cancel to avoid losing my money and take the travel voucher (good for two years). I said I would because I didn’t want to risk losing the hard earned cash. I’m also hoping Chase comes through so I don’t have to worry about cashing in the voucher and get a full refund.
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