Airlines raping you as they cry over shutdowns

It’s cheaper for a Canadian to fly to Australia than within their own country

WestJet media rep tells columnist to piss off when questioned

Everyone is affected by coronavirus. Let’s be honest: Life in someway or another has impacted every single person’s life. And while most people have compassion for others in crisis, it’s difficult to feel bad for the airline industry at this time.

First, I recognize that thousands upon thousands of workers are out of jobs. It’s terrible and I can only imagine the stress these people are going through. But I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about the shady industry in which they work.

For years, travellers have complained about the way airlines treat passengers. Whether it’s overselling flights and not having a seat for you, or lengthy flight delays while leaving you in the dark, the majority of people have some sort of commentary about their airline travel.

In light of this, its led governments around the world to implement some sort of rights and protections for consumers. Sometimes it appears the rules favour the customer but other times it looks like the government is protecting the billion-dollar corporations. And when this whole coronavirus crisis has passed, it’s expected the feds will once again step in to save the troubled companies.

Until that happens, we’ve heard about how airlines have suddenly raised ticket prices while posting gushy messages about how “safety is our priority” and they’re working hard to get you home and monitoring the situation and blah, blah, blah.

True, practically everybody was caught off guard by travel restrictions and a lot of decisions were seemingly made on the fly. The way airlines have reacted to the developing story of the global crisis has enraged people who were either stranded while travelling or were slated to takeoff but were grounded by various restrictions.

Airline policies are notorious for keeping your money and refusing to give it back. There are loopholes or fine print or legislation they hide behind to hold tight the cash you want back. While all airlines implemented new change/cancel policies that sounded like a heroic move in light of coronavirus, it was simply a credit for future travel… that must be used within a year (in most cases).

RELATED: I felt the goop while flying Swoop

That’s right, they’re not charging you to change the flights you’re not allowed to take. They’re spinning that to make it look like they’re doing you a solid by giving you a credit to force you to do future business. You can’t get your money back – not only because you can’t get through to the airline’s jammed phone lines – and you must commit to being a customer, or your money is gone.

A media colleague mentioned to me that an airline representative speaking off the record told her that if the airlines in fact had to refund the customers whose flights were cancelled, some would immediately go bankrupt just from those transactions alone. It’s a lose-lose situation whether consumers en masse are out money or big corporations are out money. Someone’s got to be the loser. It’s a question of who the government sees as more important. This is a time when the general public expects its government to side with the people.

I should point out that I had a dispute with Flair Airlines last year when they cancelled flights without telling me and wouldn’t make arrangements for me to complete my trip. It took months of fighting but I was able to get compensation after filing a formal complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency. (Did it really need to drag out six months to recoup $500 from them? It’s the principle of the matter.)

Amid claims that airfares skyrocketed in the height of the coronavirus travel shutdowns, some airlines said they’re not raising fares and their commitment is to get people home as soon as possible.

I’ve been monitoring airfares throughout this time and I’ve noticed some trends. Prices for trips to Costa Rica or Hawaii have remained low (for travel from Winnipeg). Both were averaging about $450 round-trip for travel this spring. It was the same for destinations in Brazil where prices remained consistent for days (approximately $700 round-trip), though frequency of routes declined – as expected after airlines announced reduced routes. But domestic travel is substantially higher, leading consumers to believe that the airlines aren’t looking to make it easier, or cost effective, to get around in their own country – which is currently the only place most people can fly.

Case in point: On March 20, I did random airfare searches on multiple websites. To fly round-trip from Winnipeg to Toronto was $1,272 on WestJet’s website. To give some context, with a good seat sale this could easily be about $350-$400. Here’s the kicker: Flying round-trip from Winnipeg all the way to Sydney, Australia on the same day was cheaper (at $1,222 on cheapoair.ca) than making a two-hour flight partially across Canada. Later, WestJet’s Winnipeg-Toronto itineraries were going for nearly $1,700. These are the lowest-price (“economy”) class tickets with no extras — meaning, the basic of the basic seat. (See the bottom of this post for screenshots.)

You read that correctly. It’s $50 cheaper for me to fly literally around the world than it is to make the quick jaunt one province over in Canada. (I realize overseas travel is discouraged right now but I’m giving you this for comparison purposes.)

Elsewhere in domestic travel, WestJet’s no-frills airline, Swoop, was offering greatly reduced fares… until travel restrictions were implemented. On March 14, Winnipeg to Abbotsford cost $58 round-trip for travel in April. Later, the same flight itinerary cost $500. This is curious because at the same time Swoop’s homepage advertised all flights were $199 or less (though the asterisk indicating fine print was never found on the page), Abbotsford-Winnipeg was a wallet-busting $259 one-way. (Screenshots below) Elsewhere in April, a round-up adventure to Abby costs $638.

Also, last week, Winnipeg to Edmonton for travel in late May cost $88.01. Availability has since changed and it appears fewer flights are available, but a round-up purchase with nearby travel dates now costs $418. (Screenshots below)

We reached out to WestJet’s and Swoop’s media relations teams about domestic pricing versus international, and to address the concerns that Canadians are being taken advantage of during this sensitive time, however they did not respond to multiple requests.

Finally, when pressed a fourth time, WestJet spokesperson Lauren Stewart replied within minutes and said in (snarky) part, “We have been busy with layoff communications … If you haven’t read the news, you should.”

Stewart, responding on behalf of the airline as pictured in the screenshot below, added, “When you become a real media outlet we’ll provide a real comment.” She’s dismissing the 14 years SpeakFree has been producing syndicated radio that covers Hollywood red carpets and regularly features celebrity guests. (Related: This week on the radio we look back at my chat with Kenny Rogers in his dressing room before a concert.)

The day after Stewart’s mic-drop moment that blew up in her face, I got a call from Richard Bartrem, WestJet’s vice-president, marketing communications who didn’t cover for Stewart — in fact, he threw her under the bus.

“We are far more professional than that,” said Bartrem, who called shortly after I chatted with Dr. Phil for our syndicated radio shows. “That’s not what is normal practice for our team, certainly not normal practice for this airline. The fact that we are dealing with what is a tremendously difficult situation here still doesn’t mean that those are the sort of emails that we’re sending out. So, I do apologize on behalf of WestJet for that.” He apologized several times, actually.

During our 15-minute call, I asked if WestJet had been provided “a fair opportunity to comment on the questions that were asked.” Bartrem’s response: “Yup, and we should’ve taken advantage of that opportunity.”

In the end, I asked if Stewart herself would apologize for the remarks and Bartrem said, “She has offered to do that. She said she would do that.” I have yet to hear from Stewart — but as a bestselling author, I will offer to help proofread her resumé.

Let’s see how loud the airlines get when they beg for government bailout money though.

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