General aviation

Still waiting for a refund for a cancelled flight? Free complaint generator may help

Team of University of Ottawa law students creates free Complaint Generator for US flights

Westjet and Air Canada have come under fire from people demanding a refund for their cancelled flight due to COVID.
A Westjet Boeing 737 prepares to land at Vancouver International Airport in June 2019 (photo: Brett Ballah).

Help may be coming for thousands of people left frustrated by airline policies that have left them without a refund for a flight cancelled due to COVID-19. Four students from the University of Ottawa have created an online tool to easily generate a complaint to the U.S. Department of Transportation for free.

Taylor Bain is a first-year law student and one of four members of a team that developed the tool. Bain, Diane Hwang, Ritesh Kotak, and Meredith Ball created the site as part of an international challenge to law students.

“One thing that we’ve noticed from our own lives and hearing from other people is the difficulties that people have been having for getting refunds for cancellations,” said Bain in an interview. “We thought we may as well take this platform and give them an easy way to generate a formal legal complaint. All they need to do is answer a couple of details about their flight and their cancellation, and then they’ll have a legal document that they can submit to the DOT.”

Canadian airlines continue to come under fire for their COVID-related adopted at the outset of the pandemic. In March, Westjet and Air Canada, among others, said they would offer vouchers for cancelled flights instead of a refund. The airlines are facing at least two proposed class actions over the issue, one in Quebec, the other in Federal Court.

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Refunds an ongoing irritant

In the U.S., the DOT reminded airlines in early April they must offer refunds for flights cancelled during the pandemic. The DOT said it received more than 7,500 complaints from passengers whose flight had been cancelled, demanding a refund. Air Canada faced 969 complaints, the most of any airline.

North of the border, the Canadian Transportation Agency and federal transport minister have struck a more conciliatory tone. Both say they are trying to balance the rights of passengers with the continued solvency of airlines.

The CTA said it has received more than 7,000 complaints since mid-March. “It is not possible at this time to give a breakdown of the issues raised in those complaints, but the CTA expects a portion of these will relate to cancellations due to the COVID pandemic,” the agency said in an email.

“On the one hand, passengers who have no prospect of completing their planned itineraries with an airline’s assistance should not simply be out-of-pocket for the cost of cancelled flights,” the CTA said in a statement in March. “On the other hand, airlines facing huge drops in passenger volumes and revenues should not be expected to take steps that could threaten their economic viability.”

Air Passenger Rights has challenged the statement’s validity in court. The CTA – a quasi-judicial tribunal – said it would examine any complaint it receives based on its merits.

“I don’t want to hear about safety measures until I get my refund,” tweeted Michael Farrelly. He was replying to a post by Westjet this week on cabin safety. “It’s my money and I want it back.”

Refund Mathematics

Edmonton-based ultra low-cost carrier Flair has been one of the few Canadian airlines to offer a refund for a cancelled flight as a matter of course.

“It all has to do with your relationship with your credit card company,” said Jim Scott, Flair’s chief executive, in an interview with Western Aviation News. Unlike older, more established airlines, he said, “We don’t get paid until we fly.”

“Other airlines, because of their long-standing history with credit cards, were able to get a percentage pre-payment,” he said. And like any company would, the money has likely already been spent. “So then when they had to go give refunds, it was real cash that they had to come up with. In our case, the credit card comes up with a refunds them from an account which is in trust.”

If Flair cancels a flight to reduce capacity on a route, Scott said his airline will offer vouchers. “But if we actually just stop flying on a route, we don’t even bother trying to sell them on some other route, we just give them their money back right away.”

‘A lot more movement’ in the United States

Bain said her group – which calls itself FORMidable Solutions – made a conscious choice to start in the United States. “The DOT, we’ve seen a lot more movement from their end as compared to Canadian regulatory agencies. And we’ve seen some success in that area as well.”

DOT regulations apply to citizens of any country, so long as their flight touches U.S. soil.

“We do know that there is a need for a Canadian-based version,” said Bain who estimates her group put in around 100 hours work on the project over two weeks. “But going through the USDOT gives a better likelihood of success for consumers and still helps out Canadians as well.”

Already, FORMidable Solutions’ explanatory video has generated 350 views as part of Documate’s “Automate the Law” challenge. The contest carries a prize of $1,000 for the winning group. Part of the evaluation will be based on the number of likes and comments received in the next two days.

“I don’t think any of us have been able to provide a product like this that really uses legal innovation and technology to promote access to justice,” said Bain. “We’re really excited to be able to see people get their money back and see people taking control of the situation as opposed to just being walked over and misled by airlines as seems to be the case for so many people.”

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