After Alberta honeymooners’ fight, transportation agency says WestJet’s compensation policies for flight changes aren’t clear enough

CALGARY—WestJet needs to clear up its compensation policies for passengers who find their flights unexpectedly changed, the Canadian Transportation Agency said Monday — underscoring a situation brought to light this year by a pair of Alberta honeymooners.

Only then, the agency said, will it be able to determine whether WestJet is adequately compensating passengers who find their trips delayed as a result of overbooked flights or other problems.

But an advocate for air passengers’ rights says the problems facing Canadian travellers extend far beyond the practices of any one airline, and can be blamed on weak government policy.

Chelsea Williamson and her husband, Sean Fitzpatrick, became perhaps the first test case of Canada’s new passenger protection regulations in July.

The couple’s WestJet honeymoon flight was changed without their knowledge, resulting in a five-hour delay to their travel plans. After several attempts to get an explanation, Williamson was told the flight change was due to the overselling of tickets by Delta, WestJet’s partner airline.

As it happened, the first phase of this country’s new air travel regulations had come into effect just one week earlier, and seemed to imply the couple would be owed between $900 and $2,400 each for a case of “denied boarding.”

WestJet instead offered the pair $125 “WestJet dollars” each.

Williamson took her complaint to the CTA, and the couple eventually settled with the airline in September for $900 apiece. In an email at the time, a WestJet spokesperson said the company recognized it had not met its obligations to Williamson and Fitzpatrick.

On Aug. 16, the CTA announced it was launching an inquiry into “whether the terms of WestJet’s tariff dealing with schedule changes and irregularities are just and reasonable” under the new regulations.

With Monday’s ruling, the CTA said WestJet’s current compensation policies are not clear and gave the airline until March 18 to comply with the new regulations, which stipulate that compensation terms and conditions be clearly stated.

The agency said that once it receives a revision from WestJet with clearer language, the agency will then assess the airline’s compensation policies for cases such as denied boarding or flight delays.

Williamson said she’s pleased with the ruling, and hopes the case results in more oversight of denied boarding by Canadian airlines. That’s why she went through the complaints process instead of giving up, she said.

“The goal was to make people not have to jump through the same hoops that we went through,” she said.

The couple’s flight was changed between the time Williamson checked in, at 4 p.m. the day before, and the time the pair arrived at their gate. However, they were never notified of the change by Air Miles or WestJet, Williamson said.

Williams said Monday’s ruling identifies the same issues she raised in her complaint to the CTA.

“I think the CTA is doing its due diligence in making sure the (new regulations are) being upheld,” she said.

Gabor Lukacs, head of the Air Passenger Rights organization, said he thinks the bigger issue is a narrow definition of “denied boarding” under the new Air Passenger Protection Regulations.

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The new regulations define “denied boarding” as “when a passenger has a valid ticket for a flight, but is not allowed to occupy a seat on board the aircraft because the number of passengers who have checked in, have proper documentation and are at the gate on time is greater than the number of available seats that can be occupied.”

This is usually due to over-booking of a flight, or, in Williamson’s case, a flight being downgraded to a smaller aircraft.

Since Williamson’s flight was changed prior to boarding, albeit without her knowledge, Lukacs said that, under the new regulations, her case doesn’t appear to technically be denied boarding — raising the prospect that those in similar situations might not be eligible for compensation at all.

By comparison, under the European Union’s standards, her case would be considered denied boarding, Lukacs said. He said he considers the EU standards much better for passengers than Canada’s.

According to the CTA’s ruling, WestJet acknowledged that the two passengers were in fact denied boarding as per the new regulations.

“What’s really happened here is that there was such a public outcry that WestJet gave in,” Lukacs said of Williamson’s settlement with the airline.

Lukacs said instead of “lashing out” at WestJet, the CTA should be “owing up” to the issues with the new regulations, which he said allow for exploitation by any Canadian airline.

“It’s a long decision which only tells WestJet to rewrite things … it’s really not doing anything else.”

In an email, a WestJet representative said guest care is fundamental to its business, and that the agency will continue working with the CTA to comply with the new regulations.

The CTA declined to respond to Lukacs’ criticisms.

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