Shortly after 5:30 p.m. EST on Wednesday night (Oct 21), the WestJet Group announced that it will be providing refunds to travellers whose flights were cancelled by WestJet and Swoop, from any time period, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As expected, the news set off a firestorm of reactions from players across the board.
In its original news release, WestJet said it was the first national carrier in Canada to voluntarily provide refunds to original form of payment – a statement that most news outlets ran with.
Air Canada, interestingly, was quick to dispute this, and in a rare move, took to its Twitter account to call out WestJet for releasing, what it called, a “Misleading statement!” (Yes, an exclamation point was used).
Air Canada has, notably, been refunding refundable fares for some time, returning some $1.2 billion in funds to eligible customers to date, the airline pointed out.
Up until this point, it was believed that WestJet, like Air Canada, was only refunding passengers who purchased refundable tickets, as it was outlined on WestJet’s website.
But then, this:
As a potential Twitter fight between Canada’s two largest airlines was brewing, and just as the Internet picked up a box of popcorn to watch how this would play out, WestJet tweeted back at Air Canada, saying, “Let’s clear the air.”
“We’re offering refunds for guests if we cancelled their flights,” WestJet wrote. “Even the lowest cost tickets will be refunded to original form of payment if WestJet caused the cancellation.”
The first bits of information released by WestJet on this subject could lead one to believe that basic fare tickets were not going to be included in the refund policy.
If that was the case, WestJet's policy would effectively mirror that of Air Canada’s.
In fact, Air Canada says it offers refunds for eligible tickets in real-time, while WestJet's press release notes a delay of six to nine months.
A lot has happened in 12 hours.
Late into the night on Wednesday, hours after WestJet’s announcement was made, a change (or clarification, perhaps) was made in regards to exactly what types of fares WestJet would, indeed, refund.
On Wednesday night, in a FAQ section about refunds on WestJet’s website, there was published question that asked: “Why can’t I get a refund to the basic fare I purchased?” followed by an answer that suggested that WestJet wouldn't be refunding basic fares.
As of Thurs. morning (Oct. 22), that particular question was removed from the FAQ, and PAX has since learned that WestJet will be providing refunds to the original form of payment for any fare, including basic fares, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When asked on Twitter if WestJet flights booked through a travel agency or website will also be reimbursed to the original payment method, WestJet replied:
“They are eligible. However, you will need to contact the travel agency or travel site."
It is from Monday, November 2nd that WestJet intends to systematically communicate with customers, in chronological order, starting with those whose flights were cancelled in March, at the start of the pandemic.
According to a statement on WestJet’s website, WestJet Vacations guests will continue to follow a refund process that is already established.
Why isn't WestJet providing a refund to those who cancelled their own trip?
"We are focused on reinstating our refund practice in line with our regulatory tariff and all booking conditions that were in place pre-COVID," reads a statement on WestJet's website.
WestJet also stated on its website that it doesn't intend to raise its prices as a result of this move.
"It is our intention to remove barriers to travel, not create further affordability challenges for hard-pressed travellers," the airline wrote.
While the repayment process should take six to nine months, WestJet is asking customers to wait to be contacted while it moves to process eligible requests as quickly as possible.
In other words: don’t call us, we’ll call you.
Whether WestJet's decision will have a ripple effect on its competitors remains to be seen.
However, one wonders if a major federal announcement is in the works, either in the form of Canada taking a stake in its airlines or a big bailout. In this regard, only time will tell.
Canada's Minister of Transport Marc Garneau, mind you, took to his Twitter account Wednesday night, applauding WestJet for "taking a good step in the right direction."
Garneau, who has been criticized by aviation workers for not doing enough to revive Canada's airline industry, added that "Canadians deserve refunds for cancelled trips as a result of COVID-19."
Ed Sims, WestJet's President and CEO, addressed the new refund policy on Wednesday in a blog post entitled "Refunds - It's about time.”
"We understand completely that the title of this blog post is what most Canadians are feeling right now. You’re looking for a refund and we get it," Sims wrote.
Sims admitted that it's been "incredibly disheartening" for anyone working at WestJet to not be able to demonstrate that "we have our guests at the heart of every decision."
"Love us or hate us right now, we are doing everything we can to make sure we’re around tomorrow, and next year, for you hopefully to, love us once more," he wrote.
Travel agents react
PAX saw a tsunami of reactions from travel advisors responding to the news on our Facebook page, with the majority of comments being negative ones.
Many agents criticized WestJet for its lack of communication with the trade, with many stating that they learned about the refund policy, for the first time, through the media.
Of course, many agents expressed concern over whether or not their commissions would be recalled, with many pointing out that they have been working, for free, since March.
"If WestJet values their retail partners as much as their customers, they won't issue commission recalls on these bookings. Commission recalls will certainly be another nail in the coffins of the retail travel industry in Canada,” Laurie Keith, owner of Boutique Travel Services in Hamilton, ON, told PAX.
Dave Heron, founder and general manager of Pace Setter Travel & Tours in Okotoks, AB, told PAX that since WestJet let its business development managers go, “there has been little or no communication through the much-needed agency lifeline.”
“When the ‘snowball’ began rolling downhill and gaining momentum, agencies were left with fielding client questions and in the absence of concrete info, we were winging it as best we could,” he said.
He said many travel agencies have been defending airlines in the refund vs. vouchers debate, and in the face of angry customers, serving as an “unpaid ombudsmen.”
Announcing refunds for customers, publicly and unexpectedly, puts agents and agencies in a tough spot and in a position that agents, unfortunately, know well at this point, he said.
“At the end of the day, for those agencies that are in fact still operational, they will once again play ‘middleman’ with passengers, and again, on an unpaid basis,” said Heron.
He said he fears for those agencies who are “understandably hanging on by a thread,” predicting a wave of commission recalls that will “very well be the straw that breaks the camel's back.”
“This will and should have agencies come to grips that partnerships with a carrier are more often than not a one-way contract,” Heron said.
PAX has reached out to WestJet for further comment and we can confirm that WestJet is going to be releasing a statement to Canada’s travel trade community soon.
For more information on WestJet’s new refund policy, visit westjet.com/refund.
With files from Serge Abel-Normandin.
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