Customers frustrated over treatment by WestJet during mechanics' strike

Travellers expressed frustration this week over WestJet's response after the airline cancelled more than 1,200 flights due to a strike by plane mechanics.

Messages and social media posts from some of the 150,000-plus affected passengers conveyed exasperation over hours spent on hold with customer service, the carrier's failure to rebook them on other airlines and flight cancellation notices that informed them, "fees may apply."

Tina McIntosh was set to fly to Kelowna, B.C., from Brandon, Man., last Sunday after her great-grandmother's funeral. She learned at 10 p.m. the day before departure that the trip had been cancelled.

Her partner's flight was rebooked for three days after the original takeoff time, while the reservations for her and her daughter were "just completely dropped," leaving them stranded in Brandon, she said.

Extra costs more than $2,400

After staying on hold for 17 hours over the weekend — she never got through to customer service — the family rented a car, drove 2½ hours to Winnipeg, stayed at a hotel and booked a new flight for Monday, McIntosh said, calling the experience a "fiasco."

She said the extra costs totalled $2,438.

"It's been hell to go and have a funeral and deal with all this. I'm exhausted."

WestJet has repeatedly apologized to customers and said it offered them a refund if they weren't able to be rebooked within 48 hours, in accordance with Canada's passenger rights charter.

However, the Air Passenger Protection Regulations also require airlines to book travellers on "the next available flight" from any airline, including competitors, after 48 hours if they turn down the refund — a choice customers say the airline did not give them.

"WestJet was unreachable during the cancellations this past weekend and we had to go $1,400 out of pocket to get back to Calgary from Toronto," said customer Patrick Socha.

"We may have to take them to Alberta small claims court to receive reimbursement."

WestJet also said the regulations require no compensation for hotels and meals when travel disruptions are outside of the carrier's control, such as a strike.

'Systematically refusing to comply'

Passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs says travellers are entitled to reimbursement for flights they booked with a rival and — in the case of international trips — for hotel, food and other costs, citing the Montreal Convention, a multilateral treaty on compensation for air travellers.

He said the obligation to rebook falls on carriers.

"It's quite clear that you don't have to run after the airline," Lukacs said.

"That's a clear obligation and WestJet has been systematically refusing to comply with it," he claimed.

WestJet said it has been doing everything in its power to revamp operations and help travellers.

"Our teams across WestJet are working diligently to support all impacted guests as quickly as possible," said spokeswoman Madison Kruger in an email.

Some 680 mechanics walked off the job at 5:30 p.m. MT on June 28 despite a directive for binding arbitration by Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan. The country's labour board ruled that the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association was within its rights to strike, catching WestJet and Ottawa off guard and forcing the Calgary-based company back to the bargaining table with the union.

The two sides reached a deal Sunday night, but not before tens of thousands of Canadians found their travel plans for the Canada Day long weekend upended.

'Radio silence'

Jamie Greiff said WestJet cancelled her flight home to Calgary from Los Angeles this week "after allowing us to check in and pay for our bag."

Greiff, who was travelling with her husband, 15-year-old son and one of his friends, said she received a text that they would be rebooked within 48 hours — only to hear "radio silence" from the airline since.

The group managed to book a flight to Seattle, catch an Uber ride to the border, cross on foot and then find a taxi to a car rental outfit to begin the nearly 10-hour drive home.

The extra costs totalled $3,861, not including the baggage fee for the cancelled flight, Greiff said, calling the company "an embarrassment."