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Customers cry foul on WestJet flights rebooked up to eight days after cancellations

On a chilly Saturday earlier this month, Mindy Watson's family faced the disappointment of a cancelled WestJet flight from Edmonton to Toronto, en route to Cuba. The airline's solution? Rebook the Varadero vacation not the following day, but eight days later on Jan. 21. For Watson, whose wife serves in the Canadian military, this delay clashed with critical commitments, forcing the family to abandon their eagerly anticipated getaway.

This incident was part of a wave of cancellations by WestJet during an extreme cold snap in Alberta. Many affected customers, including Watson, found themselves grappling with the airline's failure to adhere to the prescribed rebooking window outlined in Canada’s passenger rights charter.

According to the charter, if a carrier cancels a flight due to reasons beyond its control, it must rebook passengers on its own planes or those of a partner airline within 48 hours. If this is not possible, passengers must be placed on the "next available flight that is operated by any carrier" to reach their destination.

The Canadian Press has connected with over two dozen passengers who claim WestJet did not meet this timeframe, leading to a broader debate on the airline's commitment to passenger rights.

While WestJet asserts compliance with federal rules and apologizes for the inconvenience caused by extreme weather events, passengers narrate experiences suggesting otherwise. Recordings of phone conversations reveal instances where passengers were allegedly denied rebooking on available alternative flights with other carriers.

Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez emphasized the importance of airlines respecting consumer rights and highlighted an ongoing overhaul of the passenger rights charter with stricter rules expected to be implemented soon.

Some passengers reported not receiving timely information on cancellations and rebooking options. Additionally, customers faced lengthy waits—both on the phone and in person—when attempting to secure alternative bookings, leading to further frustration.

Passengers like Kelly Regula, who rebooked with another airline themselves, are left to navigate the cumbersome process of reclaiming costs from the original carrier, a task that can take up to 30 days with no guaranteed resolution.

Consumer advocate Gabor Lukacs alleges a widespread failure by airlines to meet rebooking requirements since the regulations came into force in 2019. Lukacs emphasizes the need for the Canadian Transportation Agency to crack down on rule violations and suggests that fines, although increased, remain a small deterrent for major carriers.

While fines have risen, they still represent a fraction of the revenue earned by airlines annually. Air Canada alone recorded $6.34 billion in the first nine months of 2023.

As calls for stricter enforcement grow, the Canadian Transportation Agency plans to increase maximum fines by a factor of 10 as part of upcoming regulatory reforms. However, the agency has not yet found systemic issues with rebooking violations.

The struggles faced by WestJet passengers raise broader questions about the accountability of airlines and the effectiveness of current regulations. With an overhaul of passenger rights on the horizon, travelers hope for improved protection and swifter resolutions to disruptions caused by cancellations.



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