Anxious passengers 'unlikely' to see refunds after airlines end physical distancing
TORONTO -- WestJet and Air Canada will soon begin selling every seat on their flights again, ending their attempts at physical distancing -- a decision that has left many passengers demanding refunds.
Starting July 1, passengers will no longer be spaced apart on flights as the airlines begin offering the middle seats for sale, once blocked off in an effort to space passengers due to COVID-19.
But customers who purchased a ticket expecting not to have anyone sitting in the adjacent seat are unlikely to see a refund if they choose not to fly in light of the decision, according to Gabor Lukacs, President of Air Passenger Rights, an advocacy group for flyers.
“I would say passengers who were misled to believe that there would be no one in the middle seat have every right to a refund,” he told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
“[But] I don’t anticipate airlines to voluntarily part from their money, which is why I don’t recommend flying with any Canadian airlines at the moment.”
Under contract law, Lukacs said, passengers should have grounds for complaint, since they expected a different experience when they purchased their tickets than what the actual experience will be. However, he doubts anyone will be able to convince an airline to hold up their end of the bargain.
“They are not refunding tickets for cancelled flights,” he pointed out, adding that he anticipates airlines will “give passengers a hard time” if they try to get a refund over the change in seat policy, even though airlines have “renege[d] on their promise not to seat anyone else next to them.”
Passengers will still be given pre-boarding temperature checks, and masks will be mandatory. But experts note, despite these measures, consumers are still taking a risk.
"We do the best screening we can, wear the best masks we can, we keep them on all night long when we're on an overnight flight and things like that,” Dr. Ronald St. John, Director General of Public Health Agency of Canada, told CTV News.
“And we hope that the risk is minimal. It won't be zero."
Ticket holders uncomfortable with boarding a packed plane can rebook for free, the airlines say.
Normally, if an airline cancels a flight themselves, that’s the one time that a passenger can be guaranteed a refund, unless they want to ask for a credit instead.
However, Canadian airlines have come under fire during the pandemic for refusing refunds to customers in many cases and offering only vouchers instead.
“After stealing passengers’ money, Canadian airlines are now set to play Russian roulette with passengers’ lives to make a buck,” Lukacs said.
Several airlines operating out of the U.S. are also saying goodbye to physical distancing.
American Airlines is set to start selling every seat on their flights come July 1, and United Airlines has been flying without physical distancing for at least a month and a half. A photo of a plane packed with passengers, allegedly a United Airlines flight, picked up a lot of traffic and outrage when posted on Twitter in early May.
While Transport Canada recommends physical distancing on flights to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it’s not law.
On WestJet’s website, the airline states that they decided to end the blocking off of adjacent seats because they are following the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) guidance for global health and safety.
They say IATA’s guidelines support removing physical distancing because they are already providing other protections against the virus, such as HEPA filters to clean recirculated air, airflow being directed up instead of forward or backward, and “the physical barrier of seat backs.”
The IATA, Lukacs pointed out, is not a health organization, but an airline association, which he says is serving the financial interests of airlines.
“I’m not hearing a clear, obvious explanation from the airlines, nor have I seen any scientific research that would justify what the airlines are doing,” he said. “What the airlines are doing puts not only the passengers themselves at risk, but also anyone who comes into contact with them at the destination.
“There is a reason why there is a requirement for social distancing at the airport terminal, on buses, […] even outside,” he added. “What would be more better in terms of safety than being outside? When you have lots of fresh air surrounding you, constant circulation of air — and they still tell you to stay two meters away from another person.”
The decision to end physical distancing on flights is not one that customers are taking lightly.
Many have flooded social media with complaints and concerns, calling for explanations — and refunds — from Air Canada and WestJet.
“I just read that @WestJet has cancelled their seat distancing policy? Is this true? I booked my senior citizen mom on one of your flights because of this policy," one Twitter user wrote. “I hope you plan to offer a full refund because this is NOT acceptable. Profit over people seems to be the protocol.”
Another user wrote that they had waited for three hours on hold to talk to WestJet representatives, only to receive no help.
“[They] informed me that no refunds would be forthcoming and no special seating accommodations would be made for INFANTS who CANNOT WEAR MASKS,” Twitter user Alex Willis wrote. “Disgraceful. I hope @GovCanHealth @transportc have a reasonable explanation for this.”
Lukacs emphasized that the onus for this situation is not just on the airlines themselves, pointing out that the government could step in to require refunds, or mandate physical distancing on flights.
“The problem is not simply the airlines. The problem is the federal government,” he said.
“The federal government is abdicating its role as protecting the public health in this situation. The real problem I’m seeing is that the federal government is allowing this to happen.”
His advice? Don’t risk it.
“For this summer, it should be a staycation. You can have a wonderful vacation at home or perhaps in your own province.”