Air Canada has agreed to offer refunds to customers for flights postponed or cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Unifor president Jerry Dias.
In an interview with the Star on Wednesday, Dias said he’s spoken with Air Canada and government officials involved in the negotiations, and that the company has agreed to Ottawa’s crucial demand to repay the many customers who weren’t reimbursed for their plane tickets.
The Star was unable to confirm the claim with either Air Canada or the government, with both declining to comment due to ongoing negotiations.
“The precondition for receiving a federal aid package is that Air Canada and the other airlines will have to repay customers. I know that Air Canada has absolutely agreed to do that,” Dias told the Star.
The refunds are part of several key demands Ottawa put forward in exchange for a bailout to help the long-suffering airline industry. Among other issues, the government has also asked that the airlines restore vital flight routes and improve their financial transparency.
After four months of turbulent negotiations, industry leaders and politicians have expressed optimism that a deal is imminent.
“I know that they’re very close,” said Dias. “Based on the conversations I’ve had with the government and industry, I had already expected an announcement by now.”
Neither Air Canada nor Ottawa would comment on the refunds, though Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said in a statement that the company has been “encouraged with the constructive nature of discussions.”
“Unlike in many other countries, including the United States, the Canadian government has not provided any financial assistance or other relief specifically for Canadian airlines in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Fitzpatrick.
Earlier in February, outgoing Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu also said he’s more confident than ever that the airlines would receive a sector-specific package.
The company has made periodic cuts to staff and service throughout the pandemic, as it faces strict government measures to reduce international travel. In June 2020, it slashed between 50 and 60 per cent of its workforce, leaving up to 22,800 people out of a job. In January, it announced 1,700 job cuts and a reduction of regional routes to and from remote Canadian areas.
On Wednesday, Sky Regional Airlines announced it would shut down commercial flight operations later this month after losing its Air Canada contract. In a statement, Sky Regional CEO Jon Turner noted his company had to adjust to travel restrictions “thus far without sector-specific support.”
Ottawa has drawn ire from the airlines and their labour unions, who say the government has not moved fast enough to save jobs.
“Workers in this sector are calling ‘mayday’ and the federal government is still asleep at the switch, letting us crash,” said Wesley Lesosky, president of the Air Canada component of CUPE, the union representing flight attendants at Air Canada and Air Canada Rouge, earlier in February.
“One year into this pandemic, Canada remains the only country in the G7 without a plan to help the airline sector weather the pandemic, and defend tens of thousands of good jobs.”
But the airlines have received their share of criticism as well, as flight cancellations during the pandemic sparked an outcry among consumers who weren’t refunded for their plane tickets. Since the cancellations, consumers have banded together, both in the U.S. and Canada, to file legal action against Canadian airlines who haven’t repaid customers.