MONTREAL — Flair Airlines said this week that it has reimbursed almost all 1,900 passengers whose flights were cancelled after the seizure of four of the carrier's planes earlier this month, but some customers say they are owed more money — while others say no refunds have come through at all.
Bailiffs repossessed Boeing 737 jets on which the discount carrier had overdue payments at airports in Toronto, Edmonton and Waterloo, Ont., in the early morning hours of March 11.
The seizures meant multiple flights that day had to be cancelled, sending customers scrambling to rebook on other airlines, or to give up entirely.
Carrie Kennedy was at the gate with two friends for a Toronto-Halifax flight — all three had booked time off work for a March break getaway — when the cancellation was announced.
"It was supposed to be her first plane ride," the Barrie, Ont., resident said of her friend's six-year-old daughter. "She was bawling her eyes out. 'Why can't I go see grandma? I want to see grandma.'
"She was heartbroken," Kennedy added.
The group has tried and failed to receive any refunds for the cancelled trip, she said. The airline had rebooked them on a flight five days later than scheduled, with a return flight one day after that, which they declined.
“It was a friggin' nightmare," Kennedy said. "We don't have loads of money."
After The Canadian Press asked Flair about reimbursements Monday morning, the airline replied that evening that hundreds more refunds had been paid that day, with only eight remaining.
"We do not want any customer to feel frustrated and so our teams have been working hard to get the reimbursements paid," the airline said in a statement.
"In most cases, it required manual tabulation by our customer service team. Any remaining amounts outstanding to customers should be paid out within the next 48 hours."
No cash has landed in traveller Kelly Butt's account so far, however.
The Toronto-area resident was scheduled to take a Flair flight with her family from Toronto to Palm Springs, Calif., on Saturday afternoon, but arrived roughly 30 hours later than planned due to the cancellation.
"Seven days have come and gone. We haven’t seen a penny," she said, noting a pledge from the company on March 11 to reimburse all airfares within one week.
She and her husband, mother and two teenage kids took two different planes to Calgary late Saturday night. Butt touched down at 12:30 a.m., two hours after the others — followed by a noon flight to San Diego and a two-and-a-half hour drive in a rental car Sunday.
After numerous emails to the company, Butt said it agreed to reimburse her for the fares, but not the cost of a lost Airbnb reservation and car rental, nor to fully compensate her for the last-minute cancellation.
Flair told her in an email she is "ineligible for any expenses associated with this flight change, including meals, hotel or the cost of transportation to a different city."
The Montreal Convention, a multilateral treaty applicable to international flights, states that airlines are generally liable for damages caused by a delay of passengers, save for rare exceptions, said Air Passenger Rights advocacy group president Gabor Lukacs.
Other customers say Flair hasn't compensated them enough, and take issue with the airline's communication throughout the ordeal.
In an initial notification to passengers alerting them to the cancelled flights, Flair characterized the disruption as the result of "unanticipated maintenance delays." That explanation falls under a regulatory loophole that relieves airlines of the requirement for compensation — distinct from reimbursement — if a delay or cancellation is prompted by a safety concern.
Flair said in a statement the email was a "miscommunication," and has told customers they are owed $125 in compensation for their cancelled flights.
"The majority of the compensation has been paid out," Flair said.
But Kyle Stevenson, who was slated to fly home to Toronto from Palm Springs on the day of the plane seizures, said he has been told over the phone and by email that the March 11 flight was cancelled "for safety purposes" and that no compensation is owed him.
He said Flair offered him a refund, but not reimbursement for the much pricier rebooking he made with United Airlines in order to get back home the following day — much earlier than the return trip Flair had booked for him a week later.
Stevenson and Butt believe they and their fellow travellers are owed more.
The Air Passenger Protection Regulations state that small carriers must compensate passengers with $125 for delays stretching between three and six hours, $250 for delays of six to nine hours and $500 for cancellations and delays of nine hours or more.
"Because we arrived a lot after nine hours to our destination ... that is $500," said Butt. "But now they're telling us no, no, it's only $125 that you're entitled to."
“To this day, nobody from Flair has called us. They've emailed us a bunch, but it's been in circles because it seems like nobody is actually reading the information that we have been giving them."
Other Flair customers have voiced similar concerns on a Facebook group, though some have also reiterated the airline plans to refund them for rebooked flights.
The passenger rights charter says travellers who receive a refund are entitled to less compensation. But Lukacs of Air Passenger Rights says that only applies when the customer rebooks with the same airline or declines to rebook. If they opt for travel with another carrier, the rule has no bearing, he said.
"Airlines like to play this game of pushing the refund on passengers instead of providing alternate transportation," he said.
Lukacs also stressed that compensation issues in Canadian aviation are not unique to Flair.
"It's a broader, systemic problem."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 28, 2023.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press