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Canada What air travellers can do about compensation, travel changes after Boeing 737 Max 8 grounded

As airlines worldwide scramble to deal with the fallout from grounded Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft, travellers have been left trying to figure out what their options are in terms of compensation for cancelled flights and missed vacation days.

It’s a daunting task, so we asked transportation experts to weigh in on what Canadians should do to recoup money or missed days from airlines, insurance providers, credit card companies or government.

Here is what we learned:

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  • For travellers who are flexible, Air Canada and WestJet are allowing passengers to change both their outbound and inbound dates for no fee to give them the option of maintaining their originally intended length of stay on their trip, says Allison Wallace, vice-president of corporate communications at Flight Centre Travel Group.
  • Sunwing has only four Boeing 737 Max 8s (in effect, only three since one was delivered two days prior to this aircraft being grounded and had not entered service yet). The airline is not cancelling flights, just adjusting schedule times to make everything work. All changes up to and including March 30 are reflected in flight times on Sunwing’s website.
  • For uncontrollable flight delays or irregular events out of the airlines’ control (known as “extraordinary circumstances”), none of the three airlines covers compensation for out-of-pocket expenses, nor do they cover claims made against non-refundable land arrangements, such as a hotel rooms, that end up not being used.
  • The trip-interruption insurance that American Express offers its card holders (either for purchase or embedded into the some cards depending on their status) does not cover travellers who choose to cancel or change their travel plans in this type of situation. Visa could not be reached for comment, but an Amex spokeswoman said its policy was in line with industry standards.
  • Standard travel-insurance policies typically don’t provide cancellation coverage for “extraordinary circumstances” such as the Max 8 grounding.
  • Stranded travellers may receive reimbursements for meals and accommodations caused by delayed flights if they have insurance with benefits linked to travel delays (check your policy and be warned it may not apply because of the “extraordinary circumstance”).
  • Consumers may be covered if they have purchased “Cancel for any Reason” coverage but – again – check the small print. Some restrictions may apply.
  • Normally passengers are eligible for compensation under the Montreal Convention (basically an international treaty that applies to international flights or to Canadian flights that are part of an international itinerary) as well as the European passenger law. However, the convention and law “do not cover Canadian air passengers in the event of a flight disruption caused by the Boeing 737 MAX 8s grounding and ban,” says Christian Nielsen, chief legal officer of Berlin-based AirHelp, the world’s largest organization specializing in air passenger rights. “As country officials around the world pronounce all Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft grounded for safety reasons, the Montreal Convention and the [European] law waive the airline’s liability, as this is considered extraordinary circumstances.”
  • There is a hope for passengers in EU countries or flying on EU planes, says Mr. Nielsen. The European passenger law stipulates that all air passengers remain entitled to care while stranded in airports, even in the event of extraordinary circumstances. He recommends hanging on to receipts for hotels, food and transportation. “Travellers can also still claim expenses under [European law], although it is extraordinary,” he says. “This information specific to the passenger’s flights should be available at all times, communicated by the airline and provided on the passenger’s booking information.”
  • For assistance with mediating or adjudicating complaints with a carrier, go to the Canadian Transportation Agency website (www.otc-cta.gc.ca) under air travel complaints.

AirHelp predicts more than 21.5 million Canadian travellers will face a flight delay in 2019, which could total more than $40-million in compensation. The company said 2018 was a record year for flight chaos in the aviation and tourism industry with more than 10 million passengers eligible globally for flight compensation.

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