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A man walks past a signboard displaying cancelled flights at an arrivals floor of the international terminal at Haneda airport in Tokyo on April 3, 2020.CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images

When Monika Schweitzer and her daughter booked a three-week trip to New Zealand and Australia from their home in Montreal, COVID-19 was still a month away from being declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization.

By the first of March, they started getting very concerned about the health implications of travelling. By mid-March they had decided their April 10 vacation was off. They were disappointed but figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to postpone their trip or get a refund.

Unfortunately, like thousands of Canadians, they were wrong. Compensation, of any sort, has been maddening, confusing and incredibly tough to navigate, let alone secure.

COVID-19 has caused a cancellation crunch that few travel operators could have foreseen or were prepared for. A surge of calls has made customer service seemingly impossible to reach. To top it off, when consumers do get hold of a customer representative at an airline, hotel or third-party travel operator, they are often given conflicting information about who is responsible for getting their money back.

Passengers hoping for refunds for cancelled flights will be out of luck

“It’s been hell,” Schweitzer says. “It’s been a full-time job for the past two weeks.”

She and her daughter both started working the phones, first trying to reach the Toronto-based online travel agency Flight Network, which booked the holiday. They tried for a week, were on hold for up to nine hours at a time and still never got through.

“Finally we started calling the airlines directly. They told us we had to go back to the third-party,” Schweitzer says. “Last week, after a full day on hold, I finally got someone at Flight Network who told me we would get a credit for the trip, good until Feb. 20, 2021. All I could think was: Thank god I’m retired and had the time to devote to this."

“There is no consistency and it’s making tempers flare,” says Frederic Dimanche, director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. “Customers are extremely frustrated, and I feel their pain. However, COVID-19 has devastated the travel sector. WestJet and Air Canada have cut between 80 to 90 per cent of their flights and all those calls need to be answered by customer service. That is a lot of volume. We all need to reset our expectations of customer service. Have patience and persevere. There is no easy fix.”

What many Canadians are having difficulty getting their heads around is that old rules no longer apply. In the past, if a flight was cancelled, consumers were typically entitled to a refund. But as of March 25, the Canadian Transportation Agency declared that consumers could be offered vouchers or credits, which are good for up to 24 months at most major Canadian carriers.

Some people are satisfied with this policy shift. Others, not so much. A group of consumers in British Columbia last week filed a class-action lawsuit against Air Canada, WestJet, Swoop, Air Transat and Sunwing for refusing to refund tickets purchased after coronavirus severely affected travel.

Brian Sumers, senior aviation business editor at New York-based travel research company Skift, empathizes with the plaintiffs but he doubts lawsuits or lobby efforts are going to have much impact on the credit-not-refund policy in the short term.

“There are two things that consumers might as well accept. One, we are going to be put on hold because call centres are swamped,” he says. “And two, the wait is going to be longer than you might expect, especially if you’ve booked through online travel companies, which are an online service and not set up to deal with thousands of phone calls.

“I’m not sure anyone will want to hear this advice right now. But I always book my flights directly through an airline. It still takes time to cancel a flight, but it’s typically a less torturous route.”

Kirk and Cathy Dickson, of Orangeville, Ont., each invested at least 20 hours trying to get compensation for a week-long holiday in St. Lucia through WestJet Vacations that they are supposed to be enjoying now. The airline gave them WestJet dollars, good for a year, for the flight. However, the Sandals resort that was part of their package refused to give them a credit.

The couple went back to WestJet Vacations, who put pressure on the charter they used to book the hotel. Last week, the Dicksons were finally told they had a credit for the hotel, good for up to one year.

“We’re okay with that, but if we hadn’t fought back and hung in, we would have been out approximately $8,600,” Kirk Dickson says.

The best advice Dimanche says he can give to consumers is to check out travel operator’s websites for COVID-19 updates. “Consumers have to realize that everything during this difficult time is in flux. Updates are often posted daily and they cover everything from waivers of cancellation fees to extensions of flight credits.

“If this crisis has shown us anything, it’s the limitations of online transactions, especially if you have booked something complex,” he says. “Perhaps going forward people will be more careful, willing to pay a little bit more, and book their travel through old-fashion travel agencies who have a vested interest in helping you out in a time of crisis.”

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