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Travelers at Toronto Pearson International Airport, on Thursday, December 16, 2021.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Canadians scrambling to change air travel plans in response to the latest wave of the pandemic are encountering clogged call-centre phone lines and cancellation policies that, in some cases, don’t allow them to recoup the full costs of their tickets.

Last week, the federal government asked Canadians to avoid international travel because of risks associated with the Omicron variant of COVID-19. The official advisory discourages non-essential out-of-country trips but does not ban them outright.

Now, some would-be travellers who are trying to heed the government advice say they have waited hours on the phone to speak to airline representatives. Once they get through, many find the options offered to them are not to their liking because Canada’s air passenger protection regulations don’t require airlines to provide refunds in cases when customers cancel tickets of their own volition.

Jeff MacRoberts, a 31-year-old public servant who lives near St. John’s, said he was able to recoup most of the cost of his $5,000 trip to Jamaica only after threatening WestJet with legal action. He said he was unaware that he would have to pay an additional fee to change or cancel the vacation package. After he spent a total of more than 10 hours on the phone over several days, the airline gave him a credit for the full amount but charged him a $500 cancellation fee.

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According to WestJet’s cancellation policy, passengers who booked flights between March 3, 2020, and January 31, 2022, are allowed free one-time changes or cancellations if COVID-19 affects their travel plans. Passengers are responsible for paying any difference in cost between their old flights and their new ones. Mr. MacRoberts said he is unsure why he didn’t qualify.

“Unless you are well versed in this sort of thing, you could interpret the [cancellation] policy to mean you were covered. It seems a little bit shady,” he said.

WestJet has been asking travellers to refrain from calling until 75 hours before their flights and offering them a scheduled callback option. According to spokesperson Morgan Bell, the company has hired more than 600 additional call-centre staff since the end of summer.

Mathieu Robitaille, a 39-year-old high-school teacher from Welland, Ont., said he booked a vacation in Cancun with Sunwing, a travel agency, last spring. He did it with $6,000 in vouchers from another cancelled trip.

Seeing the increase in Omicron cases, his family decided to delay the Cancun vacation, believing the trip-cancellation insurance included with their CIBC Aventura credit card would cover the cost. But after more than 12 hours on the phone with airlines and Sunwing, Mr. Robitaille learned the insurance doesn’t apply to cancellations made as a result of the federal travel advisory. (Other trip-cancellation insurers have said similar restrictions apply to their policies.)

Now, with no way to get his money back, Mr. Robitaille is considering taking the trip despite the advisory.

“We’re pretty sure we’re going to have to go and take the risk, but it’s not going to be the best vacation because we’re worried about getting sick. It’s very frustrating,” Mr. Robitaille said. “I wish they were being a bit more accommodating and understanding. Every Canadian who wants to travel is in my shoes right now.”

Passengers trying to change domestic flights are also having difficulties. Shakira Chaitoo, a 23-year-old who attends university in Ottawa, said she spent a total of 25 hours on the phone with WestJet over the course of two days while trying to rebook a flight from Toronto to Ottawa. She flew to Toronto to visit family on Dec. 15, she said, but decided to delay her return to school when it became clear that Omicron would prevent her from celebrating New Year’s Eve there.

Ms. Chaitoo said she rebooked with Air Canada and hopes to recoup the cost of the original flight in credits, under WestJet’s flight-change policy. “They’ve been advertising that they provide peace of mind with a free flight-change policy, but you can’t access that or take advantage of that. So it feels really disingenuous,” she said.

Sangeeta Bhatnagar, chair of the Greater Toronto Area Contact Centre Association, said the situation has become dire for call-centre staff, who are dealing with upset travellers.

“Imagine being asked to work overtime after an eight-hour shift, where every person on the other end is angry and frustrated and taking their irritation out on you,” Ms. Bhatnagar said. “They’re doing the best they can.”

Gabor Lukacs, president of advocacy group Air Passenger Rights, said while airlines are not responsible for refunding flights on request from passengers, long wait times for customer service could be considered violations of the right to change a booking. Airlines should have anticipated a seasonal surge in COVID-19 and prepared for a wave of cancellations, he said.

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