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Grounds crew work near a Westjet craft at Terminal 3 at Toronto Pearson International Airport on July 14, 2020.

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

WestJet Airlines Ltd. is offering refunds to customers with European flights cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Travellers with flights to or from Europe and scheduled to depart between March 1 and Oct. 31 of this year can be reimbursed within four weeks, according to an update sent by WestJet to travel agents this month and obtained by The Canadian Press.

The policy marks a shift from the airline’s previous stance that offered flight credit or no-fee rebooking rather than reimbursement for trips that were cancelled as airlines halted the majority of their flights amid border shutdowns, quarantines and a collapse in travel demand.

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WestJet is contacting guests with eligible flights who had already accepted travel credit to alert them to the new option, spokeswoman Lauren Stewart said in an email.

In June, WestJet adopted a similar approach to refunds for cancelled flights to or from the United States or United Kingdom.

The carrier’s policy stands in contrast to that of Air Canada, which has announced refund offers for travellers with flights departing from Europe but not for customers whose trips originated in Canada.

Air Canada is also disputing formal refund complaints its customers made to the U.S. Department of Transportation. There have been more than 1,700 of them, the second-highest number of any airline in May (the last month for which figures are available).

WestJet did not say what prompted the policy change.

Passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs said the reimbursement pledge is a welcome about-face, but one that should have come months ago.

“European law has been and remains that airlines that cancel flights for whatever reason must refund the entire ticket in the original form of payment to passengers,” Lukacs said.

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Some travellers resorted to asking banks for credit card chargebacks, with mixed results, he said.

“Many people have been successful in getting chargebacks. But it’s a profoundly wrong situation when you have to go to such a length in order to get simply what you are owed.”

Clients with cancelled domestic flights or trips to Mexico or the Caribbean will receive information on refunds “at a later date,” WestJet’s note to travel agents says.

The Calgary-based carrier made a push into European markets last year, launching routes to London, Paris, Dublin, Glasgow and Rome in a bid to challenge Air Canada by offering transatlantic flights that target business passengers and the jet set.

Of those, only the Calgary-London and Calgary-Paris routes remain in operation, and “on an extremely reduced schedule,” Stewart said. The Paris route will be removed from the flight schedule by the end of September.

Domestic and U.S. flights make up the bulk of WestJet’s business in a typical year.

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WestJet’s pivot follows months of backlash against Canadian airlines' decision to offer credit or vouchers rather than refunds for most of the flights cancelled due to fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A handful of passenger groups have proposed class-action lawsuits against airlines and complaints to the Canada Transportation Agency have soared in recent months.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and the European Commission, which have offered billions of dollars in financial aid to airlines, require carriers to offer reimbursement to passengers who paid for services that were never rendered.

Unlike countries including France, Germany and the United States, Canada has held off on sector-specific support for carriers. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instead rolled out financial aid available across industries, including the wage subsidy and loans starting at $60 million for large firms, that were available to airlines.

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