As WestJet and other airlines across Canada continue to struggle through the pandemic, much has been said and written on our response to COVID-19, particularly when it comes to refunds. As the executive in charge of WestJet’s government relations portfolio, I am hoping I can answer some questions and help set the record straight.
WestJet sells different fares for different needs
Like most airlines, WestJet sells different kinds of fares for the same flight including Econo, Premium and Business, each of which offers unique features and benefits to the travelling public. To keep our prices as low as possible, we provide a variety of fare choices that best meet the needs of the guest, some of whom value things such as extra flexibility, a business pod or priority boarding and some of whom value the lowest price possible. When booking a ticket with us either through our website or a travel agent, guests are given the option to buy a refundable ticket which is available with our PremiumFlex and BusinessFlex fares. These fares give nearly complete flexibility to change or cancel the guest’s travel and still receive a refund to original form of payment. For those guests who are reasonably confident they won’t need to change their travel plans and are looking for a lower fare, many choose a more affordable option such as Basic, Econo, Premium or Business without the “flex”. It’s worth noting that basic fares are not for everyone due to their lack of flexibility, which is why we advise our guests of the fare restrictions along with alternative fare options through multiple prompts at the time of booking. In normal circumstances, this means the ticket may be forfeited on a basic fare or a voucher will be provided on other non-refundable fares if the trip is cancelled by the guest. In these cases, the price of the ticket is more important than flexibility.
How has the pandemic impacted your tickets?
The speed and breadth of the impact of COVID-19 was impossible to predict and had no reference point in the history of commercial aviation. WestJet has been impacted by COVID-19 as much as any enterprise and when the pandemic hit, our guest bookings dropped by 95 per cent, while cancellations outstripped the numbers of bookings. At no other time have we had to ground two-thirds of our fleet, furlough 9,000 of 14,000 employees, repatriate thousands of citizens and shut down most of our network aside from domestic flying. These were massive changes, implemented swiftly in the name of safety and protecting our business in a short period of time.
A lot changed overnight due to the pandemic. What did not change were our guests’ tickets. Guests who had purchased refundable tickets like PremiumFlex and BusinessFlex were immediately entitled to refunds. In jurisdictions like the UK, the European Union and the U.S., WestJet was required to provide refunds to guests when we cancelled their flights. It is worth noting that in each of the jurisdictions where refunds were required by law, those governments had provided some measure of financial support to their home airlines. Canada remains the exception where no sector-specific funding has yet been provided to the aviation industry.
In Canada, many of our guests were not eligible for refunds because of the fare class of the ticket they purchased, and some guests would have entirely forfeited their tickets because of the Econo basic fare they had purchased. WestJet made the decision to provide all of our domestic guests vouchers for the full price of the ticket so they could use this voucher for future travel. I am not your lawyer and I cannot provide you with legal advice, however, I would encourage you to review the guidance provided by the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) on March 25, 2020 stating that airline tariffs do not always provide for cash refunds especially in cases beyond an airline’s control, such as the pandemic. WestJet did not provide vouchers because were required to provide them – WestJet provided vouchers because we believed it was the right thing to do and we hope that our guests will fly with us as soon as circumstances permit.
We have always been the airline that has put the interests of our guests first and this was far from a perfect solution. We heard from many guests whose lives have been impacted, many dealing with financial hardship and it’s why, as soon as it was possible, we decided to go one step further. On October 21, 2020, we unilaterally began processing refunds to all guests whose flights had been cancelled by WestJet no matter the fare class they had purchased, including those who had purchased our Econo Basic fare.
We remain the only national airline in Canada to have undertaken refunds in this manner and to-date, more than $450 million is eligible for refunding or has already been refunded to our guests. The process is a bit slower than would otherwise be the case, but our workforce remains a fraction of what it once was, and we are working through the backlog as quickly as we can.
Vouchers – not perfect but will be there when you need them
As we work through our refund process, we do have many guests who are asking to keep their refunds in the form of the travel bank vouchers. And for this, we thank you. Vouchers for future travel can help protect our guests from losing the full value of their flights, and improve the odds that over the longer term, consumer choice and diverse service offerings will remain in Canada’s air transportation sector.
As a result of this long-term crisis, we have also extended the vouchers so that they can be used for up to 24 months. We know it is possible that many of our guests may need a little more time before they can use them, and we are committed to honouring these when the time is right for you.
It’s been a bumpy road and almost a year after the pandemic took hold in Canada, we continue to proactively and responsibly manage our business through this crisis so that we can hasten our return to service and let our guests utilize these vouchers as soon as safely possible.
As noted above, and worth repeating, Canada is now the only country with a major airline industry where the federal government has not provided sector specific support. Every country where there are refunds to original form of payment, there has been support beyond wage subsidies from the federal government.
To those of you directly affected, thank you for your patience. We remain as committed as we have ever been to keeping Canadian air fares fair, and to ensuring you will always have competition and choice. We look forward to welcoming you on board when the time is right.