Boeing 737 Max controversy highlights lack of options for Canadian travellers: advocate

Canadians scheduled to fly on Boeing 737 Max planes this week learned there was little they could do if they felt unsafe flying on an aircraft model that had two crashes in less than six months, including Sunday’s deadly Ethiopian Airlines crash that left no survivors.

While many countries grounded their fleet of Boeing 737 Max aircrafts, Canada and the U.S. were among the last nations to do so. In the stretch of days in which the planes were still in operation, many Canadians discovered that if they wanted to fly on a different aircraft, they had to pay for the changes themselves.

Gabor Lukacs is the founder and co-ordinator of Air Passenger Rights, an independent non-profit group of volunteers that advocates for air travel consumers. He told Yahoo Canada there’s little Canadian travellers can do if they don’t feel comfortable boarding a specific plane.

“There is no legal right to cancel a flight based on subjective concerns,” Lukacs said. “If a passenger feels genuinely unsafe  I would suggest documenting the issue, and just not boarding. But it may be a tough battle to get a refund from the airline.”

Air Canada has 24 Boeing 737 Max aircraft in its fleet, which means some routes are being affected by the federal government’s decision to ground this plane model, such as the one seen here in Toronto. Photo from Getty Images.

Lukacs added that air travellers should be given the courtesy to choose flying with another route, especially when it comes to future incidents involving specific aircraft models.

“Passengers should be allowed to cancel and rebook with other flights that don’t operate such aircrafts,” he said.

What concerned Lukacs about the initial response from Canadian airlines to concerns around the Boeing aircraft is that they didn’t give concerned passengers any other options besides paying the cancellation fee. If someone wants to take a risk and fly on the aircraft, that’s one thing but if they’re forced to take the risk, that’s not acceptable, he said.

“What’s most troubling is that airlines are robbing passengers of their choice, of that decisions they make, by refusing to refund their tickets, rebook them or charge them a fee if they want to rebook,” he explained. 

Airlines left scrambling

Now that Sunwing, Westjet and Air Canada have been forced to ground their Boeing 737 Max planes, some passengers are being left in limbo. For example, WestJet operates approximately 35 flights daily on its Boeing 737 Max aircraft, and they have 13 of these jets in their fleet.

On Thursday, 11 Westjet flights between Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto were cancelled, affecting 1,200 customers. The airline said more than three-quarter of those guests would be rebooked that day. The rest will be rebooked on Friday and Saturday. 

In a Thursday statement, the airline said that it’s working through the resulting cancellations, which will continue to affect travellers. Passengers will be rescheduled onto other aircrafts in the airline’s fleet. An updated schedule is expected to be made available on Monday, but until then, rebookings will take place on a day-to-day basis. 

Air Canada has 24 of these now-grounded planes in their fleet, operating approximately 75 flights a day. The airline said adjustments are being made to flight schedules to minimize disruption by “optimizing the deployment of the rest of our fleet and looking at alternative options, including accommodating customers on other airlines.”

Air Canada said that while some routes will continue to operation with different aircraft, others are cancelled in the short term, including Halifax-London and St. John’s-London routes. are cancelled in the short term, with passengers re-routed through our Montreal and Toronto hubs.”

Air Canada customers travelling soon are advised to contact the company’s call centres or travel agents. Travellers will be given priority if they are travelling in the next 48 hours.

Sunwing, which has four 737 Max aircraft in its fleet, said aircraft assignments are finalized very close to departure, which makes it hard to give an exact number of times the aircraft is used from each airport. The airline said it is revising its schedule and will not be cancelling any flights as a result of the ban.